Sunday, December 27, 2009

It's Finally Winter!

We have snow here, as we should in a Connecticut December. It's snowed a couple of times already, and though today is warm, we should be showered in snow twice this week. So it's time for some winter gardening chores.

* If you have pots of perennials or woodies that didn't get into the ground last autumn, tip them onto their sides; don't leave them standing up. This is a technique my great gardening buddy Paul Young taught me. It prevents the roots from rotting in the inevitable freeze-thaw cycle that the next few months will bring.

* Keep up with your cuttings. Water at least once a week, and watch for signs they need to be repotted. I take coleus cuttings each autumn, and repot at least twice during the cold months, depending on how large I want my potted plants to be when I set them out in late May or early June.

* Start a new gardening diary in January. That's where to assemble a wish list of new plants, seeds, shrubs etc, for 2010, and where to list ways to ease your chores this coming season.

Happy New Gardening Year! The days are growing incrementally longer and before we know it, a new gardening cycle will start.

Friday, December 4, 2009

'Tis a too-warm autumn

Is this going to be another winter like the one several years ago when the hellebores bloomed in January? I'm fearful. There aren't many years when I haven't started the winter compost, put in the pond de-icer or started the birdbath warmer by now. And I know, 'cause I keep copious notes on all things gardening in my yard, and have for nigh onto 30 years.

Spring comes 8 hours earlier every year, the pundits say, and it's borne out by my records.

While it's nice to have these johnny-jump-ups in my yard in December, as well as the salvia 'Victoria' still in bloom and the 'Knockout' roses in the backyard garden, their presence makes me worry what we've done to the planet.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Does this bad boy live in YOUR neighborhood?

It's not a northern bamboo. It's not an ornamental. It's Japanese knotweed and it's taking over large swaths of Connecticut, creating monocultures and choking out useful plants that provide homes and food for wildlife.

A fast-growing, aggressive perennial, this knotweed spreads by rhizomes and doesn't appear to be particular about where it infests. I see it on roadsides, along streams, in abandoned fields, and in hedgerows. Like so many invasives, it was introduced to America as an ornamental decades ago and has escaped cultivation to become a noxious weed.

If you have this thug, removal is recommended if you don't want it to take over. My gardening friend, Don Warfield, and I have been working on removing Japanese knotweed from a stretch of Rte. 58 in southern Bethel for a couple of years. Here's the approach we've found works best:

1. Cut down the reddish shoots that emerge in the early spring. They can be tugged out, albeit with difficulty. A hand-held claw works well to evict them from the soil.

2. During the first year of eradication, be prepared to rip out the stems about once every 6 weeks. Try to do it after a rain, when the ground is softer.

3. If you've been diligent, the second year just a few shoots will emerge, but these must be removed as well, or the entire grove will return.
4. Monitor thereafter.

In the area we've freed, more desireable material such as aster, milkweed and chicory is returning. Don and I both check the progress of our little freed area on a regular basis. We feel it's important to do our bit for the land. Won't you help, too?

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Let's get familiar with Fothergilla

Such a funny name for such a marvelous shrub. Dwarf fothergilla (Fothergilla gardenii) or bottlebrush shrub, is native to the Eastern United States and thrives in sun or shade. It'll grow to 3' high and 3' wide, (Fothergilla major, also native, will grow to 10' x 15', by contrast) Both have several seasons of interest. The fragrant, bottle-brush shaped flowers appear in spring; the somewhat crinkled green leaves stay crisp all summer; and tah-dah! the fall foliage boasts a symphony of orange, purple, and red hues. The shrub colors up late (like right now) and holds it well.

I added fothergilla three years ago to my White Pine Garden, a semi-circular bed under a majestic white pine on the south, albeit shady side of the yard. It's accompanied by Azalea 'Beauman's Pink', & 'Mother's Day'; by witch hazel 'Jelena' and 'Arnold Promise'; by redcedar juniper seedlings which I purchase from Alice Mayer at our annual church Bazaar, (coming up next Saturday, the 14th!); an oakleaf hydrangea which I think is 'Pee Wee', and a curtsey of various hosta. All the plantings are shade tolerant, and though I do apply deer repellent, they've not been bothered in the several years they've been in residence.

It's not always easy to find attractive, native, shade-tolerant shrubs that also lend interest all season. Give fothergilla a chance, you won't be sorry.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

My Sassafras Story

When we moved here to Fairfield County, Connecticut our woods edge hosted a few sassafras. I'm almost sure of it. These small trees are easy to identify, since they have three different shaped leaves; hand, mitten and glove.

Dunno what ever happened to them, but they're long gone. Did the blankety-blank deer eat them? Did disease wipe them out? Whatever. So I've been searching for a few little ones to get started around the edges of the Backyard Garden. Paul Young has been helping me in this, but those little trees are the devil to transplant.

Earlier this year Florence and Donna Bosworth invited us to come and dig up what I naively believed were sassafras seedlings from the huge specimen in their front yard. Paul & I trotted up there on a damp March day, only to find the "seedlings" were actually root suckers. We dug and potted 5 or 6, nonetheless. They had no roots of their own and we weren't optimistic about their survival. I placed them by my shed, and waited. Lo and behold, they sprouted leaves! So I moved them into more sunlight, and they thrived.

Until August, when they all but one faded, lost their leaves and seemingly croaked.

I waited a month before I took action. When no revival was apparent, and I needed the pots, I yanked out the sticks and tossed them into the brush pile. Then I looked at 'em.

Drat! They all had little white roots...they were alive! At least, they had been until I pulled them from their home.

Above is the sole baby remaining It's still in its original pot (with some volunteer forget-me-not). The fall color is exquisite, don't you think? I'll keep it potted this winter, tipping the pot over once the ground freezes so the roots don't rot. And plant the little guy early next spring. Here's hoping he makes it!

Paul and I have been invited to dig more sassafras come March. Maybe I won't inadvertently murder next year's crop.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Gorgeous Autumn Color

Regular readers here know I'm enamoured of all things hydrangea. The delicate lacecaps of 'Blue Bird', the spectacular purple blooms of 'Glowing Embers', the old-fashioned pink of 'Preziosa', to name but a few of my favorites. Here's another:

Hydrangea paniculata 'Pinky Winky' is one of the large, late-blooming types that decorate our yards in fall. The 12" to 16", conical-shaped flowers start out white, gradually turn pink and end up a deep, resonant rose. The plant stays in bloom for at least two months, and flowers on new wood, so you don't have to worry about winter kill. It produces regardless of climate, soil, pH or pruning. He's hardy to Zone 4.

Pinky is a moderately big fellow, eventually reaching to 6-8 feet. I do protect him with deer repellent, and he's not been bothered by hungry herbivores. Pinky appreciates a spring application of slow-release fertilizer meant for trees and shrubs, and like most of his ilk, does best in 1/2 to 3/4 day sun, at least here in Connecticut.

Grow this guy where you can see him frequently---he's a beaut!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

What's in Bloom in Your Garden?

Autumn is upon us, but that's no reason to give up on color in the garden. We here in Connecticut have at least another month of vibrancy at our fingertips, if we plan well. Here's some of what's blooming today in my yard:

Annual Vines: Morning glory, cardinal flower & scarlet runner bean

Shrubs: Oakleaf hydrangea, and 'Pinky Winky', 'Preziosa', 'Blue Bird', 'Nikko Blue', 'Blushing Bride', 'Endless Summer' hydrangea, 'Knockout' roses, spirea.

Perennials: various asters, Japanese anemone, several types of sedum, turtlehead, daylily 'Happy Returns', phlox paniculata, coneflower, obedient plant, buddliea.

Annuals: impatiens, verbena, cleome, portulaca, marigold, salvia 'Victoria', perilla, petunia,

Bulbs: dahlia, caladium, cyclamen.

And that's off the top of my head, excluding the wildflowers such as goldenrod; the red and gold fruit on the crabapple trees, viburnum & kousa dogwood; the patio pots, and the goldfish.

The point is, it's easy to have all-season color in your garden. For each plant you choose in the spring, also pick up a late bloomer. You'll soon have a garden full of flowers from March 'til November!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Blogging from Beijing

Actually, blogging from Beijing, as I found out, is not possible. At least not last week, when I was there. Sites are regularly blocked, according to my daughter, Courtney, who has lived in BJ for years.

But here are some of my impressions of horticulture & gardening in that huge city:

  • There is much more greenery lining the streets, and pots of annuals prettying things up, than when I was last there, in '04. Willows along the channelled riverbanks, which were full of interesting-colored water. Small sycamores and oaks elsewhere. Large locust trees.

  • Elaborate arrangements of annuals were placed in various spots; begonias, impatiens, other familiar flowering plants. Modern China is about to celebrate its 60th anniversary; there was much decorating of the streets going on with these.

  • The large squares, such as the one at the Olympic site and Tienneman, held little greenery and no birds. Just huge expanses of concrete.

  • Soil in potted plants, and small plots with ornamental trees, etc. looked nutrient-poor, and was not mulched.

  • The Flower Market, held near the American Embassy, was a bustling place full of vendors hawking annuals, houseplants and decorative items for the home, such as statuary.

  • There is an veritable army of workers setting up and tending to plants.

  • Watering is apparently done from large trucks at night, with workers administering what look like fire-hose quantities of water.

  • The Beijing Botanical Garden, on the far outskirts of the city in the northwestern hills, is an oasis of green, with a temple, wide paths, simple perennials, man-made watercourses, and a lovely, expansive lilac area. It was the only place we visited where we were the only white people, and Jerry, with his white beard and curly white hair, got some stares.

All in all, things in BJ look greener and more colorful than several years ago, though some of the street trees are suffering. I believe there was much planting done for the Olympics, and that effort shows.

I'll post some pictures when I can find them on my camera!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Glory of Grasses

'Tis September and time for the ornamental grasses to shine. What's that? You say you don't have room for the big fellows like miscanthus 'Variegata' or panicum 'Shenandoah'? They do take up gaboons of space, and true, not every gardener has space for them. But fear not! There's an array of smaller grasses to choose from. Grasses which lend an air of sophistication, movement and grace to even the tiniest patch of Mother Earth.

So consider the following little guys:

Festuca 'Elijah Blue', a 12" spiky mound of blue-green foliage.

Pennesitum 'Hamelin', a swaying mass of foliage, about 24" in height.

Pennesitum 'Little Bunny', just as cute as its name, and only 18" high. (see above)

Be sure to leave some room in your garden for grasses, no matter what size plot you have. There's something about them that appeals to the westward-ho pioneer in all of us. But more than that, their beauty, form and elegance fulfill a garden need.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Mid-August Musings

It's hot. I'm busy. Except to water patio pots, and pull a few pilea & sorrel weeds, I haven't spent much time in my precious garden the past few weeks. But that's OK, because a lot of forethought has gone into taking some time off during the dog days. My well-planned and planted perennial garden will do by itself during these times. The garden includes flowering shrubs such as clethra and hydrangea; self-sowing annuals such as perilla, verbena bonariensis, and cleome; and stalwart perennials such as rudbeckia and phlox. The swallowtail, monarchs, skipper, and painted lady butterflies which are drawn to these summer bloomers add movement and grace to the summer garden, even if all I want to do is admire it from inside my air-conditioned home.

As you plan your perennial bed (and we should all be planning, every year), remember to include a few of the hard workers mentioned above. They add easy late-season color, fragrance and interest to the garden of the work-weary gardener.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

A Rescue Story

There are many inexpensive ways for a gardener to increase her stock. Seed-starting, plant exchange, division, Garden Club plant sales, etc. Another technique I've used successfully is rescuing church plants.

Especially at Easter, but at other times, too, there are apt to be leftover potted plants that once graced the altar. If they're orphans, it might be possible for you to give them a new home. Just ask. Better they should be given a chance in the garden than deposited into the Dumpster.

In this way I've successfully grown on pansies, daffodils, (pass on the tulips; they're not likely to do well) hydrangeas (not always hardy, though), grape hyacinths, and my most spectacular effort, Easter Lilies.

A couple of years in a row, forlorn lilies have been left at my church, Bethel United Methodist, after Easter celebrations. The plants look quite bedraggled after several weeks of sitting in a confining container. But I toted them home, planted in a sunny, well-drained site, and watered well. My reward has been many fragrant blooms on sturdy plants that light up the early July garden.

Now if I can just keep them from the voles!

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Gardener's Origins

How, when, does one become a gardener? What draws us to the soil, to the creation of beauty, to participation in the never-ending cycle of birth and death and rejuvenation? I'm sure we each have our own stories of how we came to be part of Nature's great garden.

Mine has something to do with being raised in a small town in western New York State. It has something to do with my agrarian ancestors. And it has something to do with being at the Woodstock Music and Art Fair in Bethel, New York, in the summer of 1969.

My Woodstock story was chosen as a chapter in the recently-issued book, Woodstock Revisited. This month, the 40th anniversary of that signature event, I'll be doing talks and readings on the book and on Woodstock. Look for me at:

Borders Southbury, Saturday, August 1. 2-4

Borders Danbury, Saturday, August 22nd. 2-4

Gunn Library in Washington, CT. Thursday August 27th, 6:30 to 8.

For those of you who remember the 60's, come and reminisce. For those of you you wish you'd been there, come and hear about it from those who were present. And for those of you who are gardeners, come and hear a unique tale of a gardener in the making.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

My Favorite Daylily

'Tis daylily season again. In the depths of summer, from the end of June until the end of August, each day brings a cascade of color among the 60 or so hemerocallis I grow. Between prodigious amounts of deer repellent and broadcastings of Milorganite, the deer don't visit, though I see them crashing through the woods on their way to the pond below.

And so it is that I stand on my deck in the early morning, watching the color rise from the backyard garden. And of course, I'm out most evenings, bucket in hand, deadheading the daylilies.

I grow big daylilies, tiny daylilies, yellow, white, pink, orange and most every other color of daylily. Shown above is my all-time favorite. It's big, strong, very purple, and performs well in semi-shade. I've had it for years and it's been in several different parts of my yard. Now it graces the edge of the patio garden, where it's easily seen and admired from the screen porch, the deck and the patio. I lovingly count the buds each spring, and tenderly put the plant to bed each autumn. What's the name, you might ask, of such a wonderful perennial?

I haven't a clue.

I wish I did. Once upon a time I knew what this beauty was called. But because I didn't label it, or write down the cultivar, I can't purchase more of it, nor recommend it to friends and clients.

And herein lies the lesson for today. As my garden mentor, Paul Young, keeps telling me, labeling is essential. He labels each and every one of his thousand hostas. Though time-consuming at first, I know it's not a great big deal to choose a labeling method, but just like deer repelling, one must do it regularly. Whether one writes on wooden popsicle sticks, or orders fancy enameled mini-signposts, label as soon as you acquire a new plant and replace that label as needed.

Then, and only then, can you be sure of what you're growing. We gardeners always think we'll remember what we've planted.

Fat Chance!

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Queen of the Prairie

The filipendula's gotta go. I've given it several years, at least 5 or 6. Oh, it blooms beautifully, right along with the astilbe, hydrangeas and veronica, and before the Joe Pye. It looks terrific from above as one gazes down on the backyard garden from the screen porch. And close up, those fluffy pink heads are downright yummy. It's easy to grow, nothing declares it dinner, and filipendula reproduces like a rabbit.

Problem is, it's too tall and in need of too much sun for my ever-shadier backyard garden. At 6', she's truly a queen, but she dominates the hosta, rose, rudbeckia, and whatever else I have down there. She drapes over them, hogging precious light and air. Time to move on, madame. And this time I mean it. I'd removed clumps before, but clearly a clean slate is needed. Of course, next I'l be faced with the delightful problem of what to plant in the space. How about that new huge hosta, 'Sum of All'? Or maybe some tall, late astilbe. I could fit in another hydrangea....

Whatever. Next spring, my gardening friends, be on the lookout for many pots of my well-grown but unlamented filipendula at the Bethel Garden Club plant sale.

You'll get a beautiful bargain.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

July presents a jumble of glorious flowers and shrubs. Hydrangea, hostas, daylillies, annuals, lilies, astilbe, monarda, roses, gypsophilia and many more. It's a visual feast. I like to have my first cup of coffee on the deck at daybreak, looking out over the backyard garden. Even the birds aren't really astir, but that's when I edit with my eyes. The filipendula is too big, needs to come out next year. The coneflower isn't getting enough sun, what can I put there instead? The astilbe has outdone itself this summer, especially the 'Visions' series. So on and so forth. Then I retreat to my green wicker chair on the screen porch, pen in hand, and write it all down in my garden diary.

Perhaps the changes will get done, perhaps not. It's fun to ponder and plan. And to read what I've written. One of my favorite pasttimes is perusing old entries in my garden diaries. What was I doing in the yard this week last year? How did I combat the groundhogs the year they attacked the morning glories? When did the mulch finally run out in '07?

In another post I'll discuss my ever-growing appreciation for hostas, a gift from my great gardening buddy, Paul Young. Suffice it to say that no gardener with shade should be without hosta. The cultivar pictured above is 'Pandora's Box', in flower. A petite beauty, she adorns the edge of my 'Believe' patch, named after a stepping-stone given to me by Muriel.

There's a wealth of subject matter for a garden blogger during the month of July. But one must be selective with topics. Just as the gardener cannot grow everything she lusts after, I can't write about every plant that takes my breath away this month.

We'll have to make do with Pandora.

Monday, July 6, 2009

New in the Garden This Year

I encourage fellow gardeners to try new things each year. That's one way to grow as a gardener, keeping things interesting, challenging and vibrant. This year, for instance, I'm trying a pretty plant I saw in my friend Kathy's garden. It blooms with a cluster of magenta flowers on a 12" stalk, likes sun, and is a ready self-sower. Now, magenta is my favorite color, and self-sowers are a favored type of plant. I had to have some! Kathy didn't know the name, but gifted me several basal rosettes, which I transplanted into my mailbox garden. Then the search was on for what the heck the plant was. I enlisted the aid of my gardening friend Alice, to whom the plant looked familiar, but neither she nor I could come up with the name.

Thank goodness for the Internet! Since the plant resembled rose campion in some ways, I typed that in, examined the pictures, re-examined a bloom stalk I'd picked, and shortly came up with an answer---my new acquisition was indeed a relative of rose campion; German catchfly. It's pretty, and prolific. I'll have to watch its manners, so that it doesn't overrun its designated place, but I'm happy to have it.

Other newbies to me this year are dragon wing begonia, hakonechloa 'Evergold' and astilbe 'Maggie Daley'.

Gotta keep things fresh!

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Rain Woes

I never thought I'd say this in all my born days, but Enough Already With the Rain. 'Course, I'm pretty sure I caused this debacle with my News-Times column back in what, April, when I bemoaned how far the Northeast was under for rainfall, year-to-date. Last time I ever do that!

We're all struggling. From the waterlogged pots to the bumper crop of slugs to the rot on the roses, it's a monsoon season. I've been gardening seriously for 30-some years and according to my garden diaries, we've never seen the like. If it would just pour down once a week or so, that'd be fine. But No, we have at least a daily dribble.

What's a gardener to do? First, be philosophic. One of my gardening beliefs is that I'm gonna lose 15% of all I grow, each and ever year. This year it's due to rain. Other years it might be voles, or (god forbid!) deer. Relax, it's going to happen.

Second, appreciate the situation. Our plants ARE getting watered, and not by us. Our ponds ARE full, thanks to the heavens. Our reservoirs ARE running over, so no worries there. Transplant season HAS lasted waaay longer than usual due to the damp earth.

When you're a gardener you go with the flow. That's never been truer than this year.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Virginia bluebells

Is there anything prettier in the early spring garden than Virginia Bluebells? The 18" graceful arching stems, the blue of the blossoms, the pink of the buds, the blue-green of the clean leaves, the name, the lack of disease or predators, her comportment in the vase, the fact that she's a native, all combine to make mertensia one of my favorite sights in the April garden. And, of course, she decorously disappears by summer to make way for overplanting with annuals such as impatiens or wax begonias.

However. Prior to fading away things get downright ugly. The stems bend over, turn yellow, and in general are not pretty. We must, however, let the plant go through this stage in order for it to recharge itself for next spring, when we'll be thrilled to see her again.

And if we're fortunate, during the yellow stage Virginia will have cast a promiscuous amount of seed, and we'll be granted a bounty of new little bluebells which will bloom in ensuing springs.

Thankfully, it's now time to cut and compost the old foliage. Clean up her area of any stray weeds, and either mulch or plant colorful annuals.

So let Virginia have her way, let her droop over the garden path, and let her seed ripen and spread over the shade garden. We'll be the richer for it.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Weigela 'Eyecatcher'

I never had much truck with weigelas; they seemed old-fashioned and unwieldy. As I've matured in my gardening, tho, I've come to appreciate them, especially the new cultivars, such as 'Eyecatcher', shown here in its second (or is it third?) year in my Front Walk Garden.
Why the appeal? First, color in the garden demands use of flowering shrubs, and weigela comports to my wishes by blooming after the latest of the lilacs and before the spirea and waaay before the clethra. Also, the smaller cultivars are a manageable size ('Eyecatcher should top out at some 2') for the smaller gardens of today. Though it has no discernible scent, this is balanced by the fact that, at least in my garden, weigela is not eaten by deer, chomped upon by groundhogs, nor nibbled to death by slugs.
Admittedly, it needs a haircut, and it'll get one this week as soon as it finishes blooming, which is the best time to prune many flowering shrubs. (If we wait, we chance pruning off next year's flowers.)
The chartreuse of 'Dreamcatcher' is one of many spots of this color I now place in my gardens. Other examples are humulus 'Aurea', kolkwitzia 'Dreamcatcher', hosta 'Golden Friendship', and many more. As a young gardener I refused to employ this color, believing it made my plants look ill. Now I understand the punches of color chartruese provides, the counterpoint to the many pinks and purples I use in my gardens, and the simple happiness of such a bright hue.
Weigela 'Eyecatcher'. In my book, it's a showcase plant. Put it where all can see.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

The Electric Lawnmower

We've had the same old gasoline-powered, fume-spewing, bombastic lawnmower since we moved into our home some 17 years ago. I'd cringe each time I dragged it out of the shed to cut our (increasingly smaller) patch of lawn. Last year I tried to find one of the new battery operated mowers, to no avail. Before I purchased one, I wanted to pat it down, heft it, etc.

I couldn't find one. Anywhere. But late in autumn, I was given an corded electric mower, one that wasn't being used. I was eager to try it out this spring. Here's my verdict:

'Tis a good thing! It's lightweight, quieter than the old mower, (though not as quiet as I thought it'd be) and does a respectable job of cutting the grass. It turns easily, mulches, and starts with no effort whatsoever.

There is one drawback. That cord. I need a humongous extension cord in order to reach all corners of my yard. That means that this spatially-challenged laborer must constantly figure out where the cord is, so I don't exterminate it by running over it. I also have to roll it up, guy-fashion, after each use, since it's no good to me in a snarled mess. I'm getting better.

And one more thing; hose guards are a must, so the taut cord doesn't destroy various plants and shrubs.

All in all, I'm pleased. Our mower no longer emits noxious gasoline fumes each time I mow the lawn; the neighborhood is quieter, and I feel quite righteous.

But I'm still looking for the battery-operated mower. Or perhaps I'll consider one of those new reel types. I hear they cut pretty sharp and are lightweight.

Stay tuned!

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Phlox divaricata

I've long loved wild Sweet William, the woodland phlox whose Latin name is phlox divaricata. Growing just 8" to 10", with a sweet fragrance and blossoms that sway in the early-spring breeze, this phlox is as easy as its name is complicated. I prefer 'London Grove Blue', which cheerfully spreads each year in my semi-shaded Main Garden. It blooms in concert with Bleeding Heart, just prior to the bearded iris, and lasts a couple of weeks.

But for years I kept purchasing new plants in order to increase the stand. I hadn't taught myself to recognize its seedlings and so was mulching over them or ripping them out as weeds. This spring I forced myself to slow down long enough from garden chores of edging, cleaning out the fishpond, transplanting baby trees, potting up material for the Garden Club Plant Sale, etc, and get nose-to-nose with my phlox divaricata.

Eureka! I figured out which were the choice 'London Grove' seedlings and thus worth saving. I deliberately did not mulch around them, leaving the 2-3" babies in solitary splendor, the easier to later transplant.

One of the best ways for a gardener to own more plants is to coddle her own seedlings. I've always advised students to learn the seedlings of one new plant each year. Too bad it took me so long to recognize 'London Grove'.
But I've got it now!

Sunday, May 24, 2009


I admit it, I have a thing for old-fashioned flowers. It's the heritage, the sturdiness, the fragrance (sometimes), the ease, the fact that generations of gardeners have known and loved certain plants.

Forget-me-nots fall into this category. I purchased my first myosotis 20 or more years ago when we lived in New Jersey, and carted one plant to Connecticut where they've dutifully propogated themselves and bloomed enthusiastically in my garden ever since. Mostly they produce the familiar tiny blue flowers with yellow centers, but occasionally they surprise me with pink blooms.
But I manage my myosotis. They may not realize it, but I do. Since they're self-sowers, it's imperative to edit. I allow them to bloom pretty much wherever they wish in my mostly shady garden; as an edger, in the midst of the azalea bed, among the emerging hosta and astilbe. They prefer moist locales, but it's interesting where they'll pop up. I love the wash of blue they impart to most of my beds and the fact that they'll bloom their ever-loving heads off for three to four weeks, depending on weather.
But then.....I murder them.
Because, once past bloom, forget-me-nots become downright ugly. They turn into black, moldy, unsightly lumps in my beautiful gardens. So out they come. Yep, I rip 'em right out of their dandy little growing spots and compost the hideous things. The trick is, I wait until they're finished blooming to dispatch them. That way they've had plenty of time to cast seed and guarantee their appearance next spring.

As you can see from the picture, forget-me-nots add an ephemeral beauty to the garden. I wouldn't be without them.
But I'm the Boss.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Mulching Miracles

Here's 5 good things about mulch:
  1. It keeps your good organic soil from washing away.
  2. It keeps moisture in.
  3. It keeps soil temperatures steady.
  4. It suppresses weeds.
  5. It beautifies your landscape.

Of course, the negative thing about mulch is that it has to be applied! Witness the mountain of mulch that still blocks my driveway. I had 8 yards delivered about three weeks ago, and with much hauling, cursing, mumbling and some strong teenage help, I've gotten maybe half on the garden. Now deep into May, I begin to feel I'm NEVER going to get finished. As I lug the buckets (I can't use wheelbarrows due to the steepness of the property and the thickness of the plantings) I generally find something that has to be done before the mulch can be put down. Weeds to pull or behead, a chlorotic rose, slug damage, a transplant Necessity, etc. So I'm delayed. But I like to think the garden benefits as a whole.

Those of you who read my weekly News-Times column know I like the dark, organic mulches, such as Sweet Peet and Agrimix. I don't use dyed material, and I don't use stones, rubber or peat moss. I want a product that will not only enhance the garden but improve it as well. By the end of the season an organic mulch will have mostly melted into garden soil, enriching it. Of course, that means that mulching is an annual chore, but oh well.

This year I've set June 1st as my Finish-the-Mulch goal. Let's I hope I get there.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Transient Beauty of Spring

The colors and blooms of spring are often fleeting, and in the shade garden this is particularly true. Such plants as bloodroot, Virginia bluebells, lunaria and bleeding heart make a dashing appearance and then dash away, not to be seen again until next year. But oh, the impression they make while visiting! To flaunt their beauty, they take advantage of the dappled light available at this season before deciduous trees fully leaf out. Scattered about on the floor of the shade garden, they, along with tiarella, phlox divericata, ginger, pulmonaria, and lingering hellebore brighten the gardener's heart. Gardener's whimsy in the form of early botanical tulips sparks further interest.

But what happens to the deeply-shaded garden once these beauties have passed? It's important to have "bones" to carry intrigue through the next five months. These can include, as above, such structural items as the picket fence, blue birdbath, and fieldstone path. Japanese painted and maidenhair ferns lend structure and pique curiosity. Areas in the shade garden which receive more sun can support bright hosta such as 'June'. Azaleas, deutzia 'Chardonnay Pearl' and rainbow leucothe also help. The varied leaves of heuchera stay the season. And of course, plantings of shade-tolerant annuals in clumps throughout the bed assist in maintaining interest.

Many of the spring ephemerals are self-sowers. If you wish to increase their stock for next year, refrain from mulching until the ginger, lunaria, Virginia bluebells, phlox and bloodroot have had a chance to cast seed.

A shade garden is often the kindest imitation of Mother Nature, who plants in groups on the forest floor and whose tranquil, soothing scenery calms the weary soul. With planning, your garden can reflect the best our Mother has to offer.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Rules for Watering

There aren't any hard and fast rules, of course. But there are wise practices. As the earth warms and water becomes ever more precious a resource, we must husband what we have. In fact this sping we here in Connecticut are 8" under so far for moisture. Shocking, isn't it?

Here's some suggestions on how to utilize what we have:

  1. Purchase an attractive watering can, one of substantial size (maybe 2 gallons). It should balance well in your hand, have a removable rose, and be presentable enough to live in the garden. (I love my French Blue from Gardener's Supply in Burlington, VT). Keep it filled at all times, especially as you leave the garden at the end of a workday. That way it's always handy to employ on a moment's notice.

  2. Obtain a good hose, keep it coiled and ready to use. If your's is a large garden, having one in each section is smart. Invest in hose guides so that as you use the hose across yard & garden it doesn't smash your lovely plants. (my hose guides are dark brown metal, ornamented with little birds, and they stay in place all season long)

  3. Set up a rain barrel. These are widely available nowadays, and are a direct descendant of the wooden barrels our grandmas had under the downspouts of our childhood homes, catching all that soft rainwater. One or two of these, hard at work snagging all the free water sheeting off the roof will go a long ways towards conserving water.

  4. Irrigate early in the day, if possible, to avoid evaporation in the midday sun. Try not to water in the evening; that promotes fungal disease.

  5. Refrain from watering your lawn. Instead, keep your lawn soil rich by using a mulching mower; dusting with a thin layer of compost; and incorporating clover into the seed mix. Grit your teeth in times of drought; the lawn may go dormant, but it'll come back!

  6. Keep your garden soil organic and therefore able to retain moisture. Dig in that compost!

  7. Mulch, mulch, mulch. Use an organic product such as Sweet Peet or Agrimix. Mulch helps the rainfall to soak into the garden; it keeps soil moisture from evaporating; it beautifies your garden; and it prevents erosion, just to name a few of its attributes.

Wise use of water befriends Mother Earth, upon whom we all ultimately depend. Do your part.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Work Table

Like most gardeners, this is an exceedingly busy time. April is transplant month, begin-to-mulch month, make-the-lists month, start-to-weed month, etc, etc. One of my favorite things to also do is pot up garden surplus for the Bethel Garden Club Plant Sale, to be held this year on the morning of the 16th of May, at the old Train Station.

Garden Club plant sales are a win-win for all involved. The gardener gets to thin out the herd, the purchaser obtains plants guaranteed to grow, because they were just dug up from a local garden. Town beautification projects benefit from the proceeds. And the prices! You'll not find a better deal.

But it can be a lot of backbreaking work readying potted homes for all those little lilacs, buddleia, forget-me-nots, columbine, and assorted other beauties. It's no fun to be bent over pots and soil and little plants in the hot sun. So several years ago I asked Jerry to fix me up a temporary potting area under the deck. For the month of April I store all the fixins ---pots, soil, scoops, water, plants, etc. The table is simply a piece of plywood placed on two sawhorses, oriented so I can see out over my Patio and Backyard gardens. I can listen to the finches while I divide the peonies. The first butterflies waft while I pot up the buddleia. And at the end of the month, POOF! The whole mess goes away, I get out my hammock, sweep away the mess, and enjoy my scant leisure time.

I rest secure in the knowledge that I've prepared some 50 (sometimes more!) choice plants from my garden for their new homes, and in the process, supported both my Garden Club and my town.

What could be better?

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

What's the Difference?

Nope, this isn't a quiz. But the similarity between scilla (on the left) and chionodoxa, also know as glory of the snow (above) has puzzled me for years. Apparently, and accidentally, I grow both. But I couldn't tell 'em apart. Both of these low-growing spring beauties produce nodding blue flowers in early April. Both reproduce with wanton abandon. Both make lovely delicate bouquets.

It nagged at me....which was which?

Last week, when these guys sprang up once again in several areas in my garden, I decided it was time to teach myself a lesson. I grabbed my garden journal and plunked myself down nose-to-nose with a cluster of each. I wrote down their peculiarities , paying close attention to flower & leaf color, size, angle of flowering, stamen & pistil and stem. This is what I learned:

Scilla are a deeper shade of blue, and look downward. Chionodoxa are more of a pastel blue, and they look up.

I decided that's all I need to know. It's probably all you want to know, too. Both these flowers are super easy, not tasty to critters, and will carpet your garden with early spring color, then decorously disappear, leaving room for later courses. Plan to purchase the tiny bulbs by the bagful come autumn. Give them a semi-shady home and fertilize yearly with Bulb-tone. In gratitude, they'll jump about your garden to unexpected locales, but try to contrast them with daffodil 'Tete-a-Tete' for a feast for the winter-weary eye.

Not all gardening questions must be answered. Perhaps ascertaining the difference between scilla and chionodoxa is one of those questions.
Let's just enjoy them.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Rejuvenating Houseplants

As if you didn't have enough to do outdoors in the early spring, this also happens to be a perfect time to repot houseplants. Scrutinize your ferns, philodendrons, peace lilies, coleus, etc. If they look peaked or off color; if they wilt quickly after watering, or if their roots are peeking out the drainage hole, they may need repotting. If you'd like them to still fit into the same pot they're currently living in, here's a way to do it:

Gather supplies, including a supply of good-quality potting soil. (I like Miracle-gro, which already has fertilizer). Find the watering can. If working indoors, cover the work surface with plastic or toweling.

Select the new pot; fill it partway with moistened potting soil. Grab your overgrown plant and haul it out of its pot (if it's root bound, this is easy to do---just poke your finger in the hole at the bottom of the pot and push. There IS a hole in the bottom of the pot, isn't there?) Or gently grab the topgrowth and pull. Or wedge a narrow spatula or trowel in between the soil and the pot.
Now lay the potless plant sideways on the table. Take this opportunity to trim off dead dangling leaves & stems.

Here comes the interesting part: Pick up a heavy-duty serrated knife and slice off the bottom quartile of the root ball. I know, I know, this is serious stuff! But if Mother Nature's in active growing mode, as she is in early spring, the plant won't mind a'tall. Set the slice aside for the compost pile. Now plunk the rest of the plant into the fresh potting soil at the same level it was previously growing, and water. Give it a day or so of shade to recuperate from its minor outpatient surgery, then put it back where it lives. Voila! The grateful plant will stick its roots into fertile soil, and thrive.

Now wash your hands, shush the spouse who's complaining about the mess, and congratulate yourself on giving your houseplant a new lease on life.

P.S. This technique may also be used for patio pots come midsummer, when your lovelies are looking tired and have grown so much that you just can't keep up with the watering.
P.P.S For those of you interested in more gardening tips, please see my monthly e-newletter. The most recent issue was sent Tuesday, April 7th, from Morning Glory Gardens. If you're not a subscriber and would like to be, send me an e-mail at & I'll put you on the list!

Monday, April 6, 2009

New Life for Old Geraniums

It's time to start thinking about what annuals will decorate our gardens, porches and patios this year. Impatiens, zinnia, or lantana? How about morning glory, coleus or ageratum? Going to try snapdragons or browallia? Many of us will choose stalwart potted geraniums. They're sturdy, come in a variety of vivid colors, bloom continuously 'til hard frost, and even make a decent cut flower bouquet. But gosh, $5.00 or more a plant?! And starting them from seed takes forever. What's a frugal gardener to do?

Save 'em from last year! Easy to do, and quite au courant in the midst of a recession. Here's the necessary steps:

  1. Purchase and enjoy your geraniums this season.
  2. Just before frost next October, trowel out healthy plants you'd like to save.
  3. Shake the dirt off their roots, and lay flat in an unheated, dark space. (I put mine on shelves in my garage.) You need a dry location where the temps don't drop below freezing. If you want to keep the colors straight, label them. Believe me, you'll never remember which is which without labels.
  4. Don't even look at the poor things until the beginning of March. By then you may see little green shoots erupting from the dead-looking stems.
  5. Drag out the pathetic objects, prune to about 3-5", pot 'em up and place in good light & some warmth. I put mine in a bay window until daytime temps are reliably above 40. Keep from freezing. Most of those scraggly plants will reward you with new growth in a couple of weeks. Harden them off as spring progresses. Geraniums are cold-tolerant, so may be planted in the garden generally by late April.
  6. You'll lose some plants, but soon there'll be a new crop from what used to be throwaways.

Congratulations! You've learned to recycle one more thing.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Fishpond

My small fishpond looks its yukkiest this time of year. Full of debris, dark in color and still with its deicer in place, it looks uninhabitated. Not So! Under the mire are frogs still a-slumber, and goldfish slowly swim its murky depths. I won't clean the pond out until the frogs emerge from hibernation several weeks hence. But since the nights are now above freezing, it's time to remove the deicer that's been plugged in since early December. The 6" round green disk floats on the surface, keeping a space ice-free, and thus allowing the gas exchange which permits fish and amphibians to survive the winter.

My 8' circular pond, only 18" in depth, has been in place nine years now, and remains a source of joy. Not too much maintenance is required. I give it a good cleanup in April, run the waterfall regularly in the warm months, (which keeps the water oxygenated) and rely on barley straw (available at Gardener's Supply, among other places) to control algae. A couple of times a season I do have to scoop out a layer of string algae, but that stuff gives an aquatic boost to the compost pile.

I learned the hard way how not to kill overwintering frogs. After the first disasterous winter when I had to have Courtney's boyfriend scoop out carcasses come spring, I figured that since my pond has a butyl liner and therefore no mud into which to burrow for hibernation, I had to do something else. Here's what I did:

First, I left the autumn debris in the pond. I know, I know, this runs counter to what the books tell you. But the layer of junk gives the frogs something to live in. Second, I sank a plastic dishwasher pan of clean sand into the water. (It comes out in pond cleanup in April, & is stored in the shed.) Since I've been doing these two things I've seen no more dead frogs in my fishpond.

The pond, with its murmuring waterfall, glistening fish, and regal green frogs, is an oasis in my garden. For a few paltry hours of maintenance I get sound, color, and livestock. A worthy deal!

Monday, March 23, 2009

Prepping the Pots

To brighten my shady patio, I plant and maintain around 50 pots of annuals each year, clustered by the posts to the deck and beside my hammock. Their schedule goes something like this:

The empty pots are stored upside down under my deck all winter, and hauled out in March. Now's the time! Yesterday I raked and swept the patio, positioned the pots, filled them halfway with homemade compost, and proceeded to top off with purchased potting soil. I prefer Miracle-Gro or similar products, with fertilizer already incorporated. To cut watering chores, I add Soil-Moist to the uppermost layer. I give the soil a week or so to settle, then pop in the annuals. For now it's just pansies, but in a few weeks it'll be the geraniums, coleus, and abutilon I wintered over, as well as purchased croton, New Guinea impatiens, and other interesting annuals. These I like to get from Hollandia, which has a fabulous selection, but also at Bethel Food, selected from their indoor plant area.
My potted cast of characters changes from year to year, but is a constant source of joy as I laze (all too infrequently, alas!) in my hammock.

Maintenance is easy. I keep an attractive watering can (French Blue, from Gardener's Supply) handy, and douse the pots as they need it. Most of what I grow doesn't require deadheading, although I do deer repel regularly. I try to vary the height and size of the pots, and the color and texture of the plants, so as to keep the display intriguing.

At the end of the season, the plants are either composted (most), cuttings taken for overwintering (coleus, abuitlon), or pulled up for cold storage in the garage (geranium). The depleted potting soil is dumped on garden beds to soften bulb-planting areas, and pots are again stored under the deck, to await Fair Spring.

Which, my friends, is now here!

Monday, March 16, 2009

Opening Day!

Temperatures above 50 and a smattering of sunshine found me yesterday in the garden, proceeding with opening-the-season chores. I cut some branches of forsythia to force. (the hope is they'll adorn the tables at the next Bethel United Methodist Church Pasta Dinner, on the 28th. We'll see if Nature cooperates) Next, I dragged out some big bags of potting soil that I'd been stockpiling and started filling patio pots. The done compost is thawed, so first the pots were half filled with that black gold. The pansies will be available soon at the markets, and I want to be prepared. I'll put some Soil-Moist in before I plant, and the pots of pansies, with some deadheading and murdering of slugs, will last until July 1.

Next I carefully cut away the old leaves from my hellebores, which are about to burst into bloom. For those of you who follow my gardening column in the News-Times, look for more information this Friday on Lenten Roses.

Kyle then helped me to haul the 30-gallon garbage can of winter compost down to my new compost pile which Don so gleefully referenced in a comment a week ago. The accumulated frozen slurry is now at work, jumpstarting a new pile.

And, I raked some on the lawn. I like to give the grass a good massage with a wide rake in early spring. It removes the leaves, twigs and dead grasses, and provides me with an aerobic workout. Not all the lawn is dry enough to work, however, so I'll take it in stages. The rakings, of course, go into the compost.

All this took me about 2 hours. Then I replaced my tools, peeled off my muddy gloves and went inside to jot down my endeavors in this year's garden diary. Got to keep track!

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Ornamental Grass Maintenance

Looks like winter has released his frozen hold, at least temporarily. The past couple of days have seen temperatures in the 50's, so where does that find me? In the garden! I snow-shoveled the driveway edge scrapings into the compost pile, scooped up soggy leaves from the patio, and cut down some bedraggled perennials, including my ornamental grasses.

The pennesitum, chasmanthium, miscanthus, panicum, etc, serve the garden well for 3 seasons. But come early spring, they must be lopped off. Grab your hedge shears (not your pruners, you'll give yourself carpal tunnel!) and hack away. It helps if you hoist up a big handful, then cut. Put the leavings in the compost pile. It'll make the pile huge, but they will break down in a couple months. Be sure to rake the bed & lawn after your work session, so stray strands of grass don't blow all over the neighborhood.

Once clipped, your ornamental grasses will look denuded, and your yard will seem suddenly exposed. But rest assured, in a month, new green spears of grass will be peeking up from the stubbly mess you left behind.

And the cycle will start anew.......

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Will It Ever End?

This winter is interminable. As much as I rail about global warming, as much as I wished for a real old-fashioned winter, this has simply gone on too long. That 10" of snow last Sunday/Monday was the straw that broke the camel's back.

I'm itching to get out and inspect the garden. I want to prune, and plan, if not plant. I long to see some bare earth, and find the first flower. (a Johnny-jump-up, most likely) I want to haul the winter compost to the main pile by the mailbox garden, and clean out the supplies slopped in a corner of the garage. I'm eager to drag the patio pots out and clean sodden leaves off the deck and see what plant labels this winter has torn away. I want Kyle to get his motorcycle out of my garden shed so I can take inventory of pots, seed starting supplies and fertilizer. I want to be able to walk outside without bundling up like Nanook of the North.

I want Spring!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Hawks are Back!

Last Thursday my good friend Paul Young and I traveled to the Connecticut Flower Show in Hartford, where we were to spend the day volunteering at the Tri-State Hosta booth. The Flower Show is a good way for gardeners to hurry spring, viewing the April-scented landscapes built for the weekend, browsing the offerings of the vendors and mingling with others impatient for the feel of earth in their hands.

Though the Show was a pleasant interlude in a cold, interminable month, it was what we saw along the way that is most memorable. We hadn't been on the road a mile before I spied the first hawk. High in a tree on the side of the road, waiting for a rodent to venture forth and thus to become breakfast was a fine specimen of a bird. Strong-winged, sharp-eyed, beautifully plumed. A red-tailed hawk.

I began to count. By the time we reached Hartford an hour later, I had seen 10 hawks. All perched in trees high above the highway, scanning the grassy sides of the interstate, searching for a meal. On the way home I counted another 12.

They're back. The hawks have left their winter feeding grounds, and are arriving back home in Connecticut, here to mate, build nests, and raise their young. On clear days their piercing cry of "kee--kee--kee" can already be heard over the silence of the late winter woods.
The hawks are back. Sping can't be far behind.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Late-Winter Chores

What a delight to be able to write "late winter"! Only 5 more weeks of an interminable season. We were teased with a couple of warm days this past week, and it made me itch to get out and garden. What's that you say? There's nothing to do this early?

Au contraire, my gardening friend. Start with yard and garden clean-up. If your ground isn't too soggy, make a circuit and pick up large sticks and twigs. Put them in the brush pile. (you DO have a brush pile, don't you? They provide essential shelter for a variety of amphibians, mammals and birds in our fragmented forest.)

It's also time to start removing the wadded-up leaves that have settled onto paths in your garden, or which have blown up against the house. Let the ones stay that are nestled in the shrubbery or among the perennials. Unless they're smothering the crowns of your plants, they can remain as free mulch. If they are hiding the perennials, wait a month until spring has indeed sprung, then remove.

As you gather up those soggy leaves, deposit them in the compost pile. They're full of nutrients and moisture and will help to super start the composting action in just a few weeks.

Stepping into the garden and doing just a few chores accomplishes several things. It gets you out in the fresh air; it lessens the workload which will be upon us next month; and even fifteen minutes of labor helps satisfy that winter-dormant urge to garden. And then there's the possibility of finding the first flower of the season, just as I did last week. There it was, a single johnny-jump-up, snugged in among the miscanthus and pennestium in the grass garden.

And a welcome sight she was!

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Sweet Peas

Once spring breaks, I think I'll again try growing sweet peas. This will be the third or fourth attempt. One year I dug the seeds in too early and they rotted in the cold earth. Another year I planted them too late and an early May heat wave cooked them. In the spring of '97 I planted my sweet peas in too much shade and they failed to thrive. There probably was another time, but now that I'm 60 (!) I forget things.

Still, the siren song of these old-fashioned, fragrant flowers calls to me. I can just see gathering armloads for the house, or giving them away in a nosegay. I can visualize the pastel colors and the cunning tendrils spilling over the white hobnail vase which was a gift from my mother. So when the new seed racks at Agway beckoned last week, it didn't take too much self-convincing to grab a couple of packs. I chose 'Floribunda', an early producer, and 'Perfume Delight', a variety known to be heat tolerant. I've got a sunny area picked out, next to the arbor and adjacent to a 'Ludvig von Spath' deep purple lilac. I figure the plants can grow either up the arbor or through Ludvig; their choice. I'll wait until the ground warms up to sow the seeds, probably around the latter part of March. And then I'll pray for success.

I grow many plants from seed each year, but I always insist on trying something new with the turn of the calendar. I'm not sure sweet peas really count, as I've tried them before, but hope surely springs eternal in the gardener, doesn't it?

Hope, and of course, folly.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Garden Journal

Tired of this endless winter? Longing to feel warm earth in your hands, hear that clear spring birdsong and smell those first flowers? Dream on; we're still a couple of months from all that.

But there is something you can do to hasten spring, at least in part. Start a garden journal. Pick a blank book of any type, and jot down your gardening thoughts on a daily or weekly basis. Tell your journal what you plan to grow come spring, and where you plan to make your purchases. Draw a diagram of your plot, make a list of your garden wishes. Commit to paper the name of that great gardening book you mean to read this year. Record the warming temperatures and the increasing day lengths.

It's all grist for the gardening mill. It will all help the endless frozen days to pass. I've kept garden journals for over 20 years, and it's endlessly fascinating to review their contents. In fact, that's my favorite pasttime when snow shuts down our community. I dig out my journals and open them at random, amazed to read how I dealt with the deer in '86, or the name of that (I thought!) lost-to-memory iris from the middle '90's, or how I longed for time to garden when my children were small and oh! so demanding.

My journals are kept on a shelf in the family room with my gardening books. I used to just pile them one on the other, but now I line them up by years, so as to have better access. I also record the year on their spine, and start a new journal each January, no matter how much space might be left in the old one.

Some of the lists I keep in my journals are: the Perennial Plants of the last 20 years; pronunciation guides to difficult names; list of items I need to purchase; list of tasks to complete this gardening year; and transplant ideas.

Keeping a garden journal. Another chapter in the gardening life.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Failure is No Excuse

I should have known better than to start seeds in the dead of winter. Cosmos, no less, which are heat lovers. But I needed pictures of the seed-starting process to accompany a PowerPoint presentation I'm prepping for my lecture catalogue.

I really thought it'd work. My large bay window faces west, and over the years has successfully launched a thousand seedlings. (though never in midwinter, admittedly) I gathered my favorite apparatus for germinating and growing. They include:

a) commercial seed-starting mixture (to exclude pathogens)

b) a clean plastic 6-pack leftover from pansies purchased in a previous spring

c) watering tray (a jelly-roll pan), Saran wrap (to serve as mini-greenhouse cover until germination)

d) a package of seeds from last year, stored in a Ziploc bag in the refrigerator

I moistened the soil with warm water, and packed it gently into the plastic tray. I sowed the cosmos seeds and lightly covered them with dry mixture. I covered the entire tray with Saran wrap, and placed the setup on a floor heat register. As anticipated, germination took only 3 days. Then I placed the tray on the windowsill.

Big mistake.

As the days wore on, not only did the growing process abruptly slow; my little plants leaned and leaned toward the meager winter sun. They were starved for light, though I tried to tell myself that cosmos are leggy anyway. Not that leggy!

Then came one of our 5-degree nights. Even sheltered from the windowpane by honeycomb blinds, the temperature on the windowsill the next morning was 45 degrees. Half the seedlings had surrendured their souls to the inevitable. Prostrate they lay on the soil.

I gave up. I'll try again when the days are longer and the nights are warmer. The PowerPoint will have to wait on Mother Nature's largess.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Birds Get Thirsty, Too!

Winter can be a time of drought for north country birds. Available sources of water may be frozen, but our avian friends' needs for drinking and bathing remain. In harsh winters like the one we're experiencing this year, it's a kindness, indeed, a survival mechanism to provide a source of clean, reliable water. And if you wish to have bird buddies help keep your garden clean of noxious insect pests once spring arrives, it's wise to help them out now.

It's not that difficult. I keep the plastic birdbath attached to my deck rail, adjacent to the hanging finch feeder filled 12 months a year. Come mid-November and the first freezing nights, I string an extension cord some 12' from my screened porch to the birdbath, and plug in a small heating element which sits in the water. I've learned to anchor it with a stone, as in the past it's shifted in a high wind, or been dislodged by an eager jay. Such implements use little electricity, shut off when temperatures are above freezing or the water reservoir runs dry, do not harm the birds, and are available comercially in several modes. They keep the water just above freezing. (Mine is a Nelson Blue Devil, purchased 3 years ago at Agway, for approximately $40.)

The water must be kept clean, of course. The water quickly fouls without a twice-a-week attention. I use a soft-bristled brush saved for the birdbaths, and simply dump out the old water, swish the brush around a couple of times, then rinse and refill with a small pitcher of water I've brought along. Takes all of 3 minutes.

Birds have been know to eat snow, break off icicles, and even catch snowflakes to obtain needed water. But Nature doesn't always furnish icicles or snow, and anyway, who would deny themselves the sight of a small junco, wren or finch dipping its beak into the fresh, clean water you've provided these winged beauties?

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Hydrangeas I Have Loved

All gardeners favor certain plants; our penchant changes over the years as we develop expertise and daring. I'm currently enthralled by hydrangeas, and have been for the past several years.

What's not to love? These beauties offer 3-season color, lasting blossoms, structure in the garden, a range of hues from pure white and ivory to pink to lavendar, to blue, red-purple and on through to green. They're relatively deer-resistant, and increasingly hardy here in Zone 5. I plant at least one each year, and my collection has flourished to now include approximately ten different types. I'm already scouting the catalogues for my '09 baby. (maybe climbing hydrangea, H. petiolaris?

One of the varieties I put in last year was 'Lady in Red'. I'd seen her mentioned in several publications, and finally spied a well-grown specimen when Muriel and I visited the New York Botanical Garden last June. Oh my! The serrated leaves, flushed with red, the quantity of pink- shading to-antique-rose blooms, the full, old-fashioned arch of the branches....I knew I had to own one. Luckily, my local Agway had several. One landed in the bed of my truck and was soon at home in Back Yard Garden #1 (all my gardens have names), tucked in nicely between miscanthus 'Morning Light' and hosta 'Sagae'.

What other hydrangeas do I grow, and why? My all-time favorite is 'Preziosa', (see above, snugged in behind the perovskia and hydrangea 'Nikko Blue'). 'Preziosa' is an old variety, difficult to find in these parts. (though White Flower Farm offers it this year---good thinking!) It's a loosely rounded shrub, bearing a quantity of pink/rose/green/beige blooms from July to October. Its flowers dry beautifully. I also enjoy 'Glowing Embers', a deep burgandy. And 'Nikko Blue', which I find not too different in appearance from 'Endless Summer'. (Neither of the preceding two varieties dry well). 'Blushing Bride' is a petite wonder at the front edge of the White Pine Garden. I'm in awe of hydrangea paniculata 'Pinky Winky'. The colors! The size! And my blue lacecap, 'Bluebird', with a bit of assistance, blooms a deep blue each summer, though not for as long as the mopheads.

New to me is 'Let's Dance Starlight', a compact, deep-pink lacecap, and 'Limelight' which promises to bloom an intriguing yellow-green.

My hydrangeas have seldom been deer-nibbled, but I do apply repellent once a month, 12 months a year. I grow my garden in rich, compost-laden soil, and thus do not fertilize much, except for an occasional dusting of Milorganite, which is broadcast as part of my defeat-the-deer arsenal.

The whole issue of changing color on hydrangeas is best taken up in a future post, and will be.

It may be time for you to get back in touch with a shrub from grandmother's garden. Try hydrangea; you won't be sorry.

Monday, January 5, 2009

The Last Bouquet of Autumn

The ground is frozen a good six inches deep by now, the first week in January. There are no flowers to be had in my gardens, not even a hardy Johnny-jump-up braving the frosty ground under the crabapples. There's no breath of spring evident, and therefore no bounty from Mother Earth's cloak to brighten my kitchen table.

But there is the last bouquet of autumn, picked in October when the garden was vibrant with late season color. The last bouquet, gathered every year as the autumn chores wind down, warms my heart as I await March, and the warmth of spring.

Hydrangea 'Glowing Embers' associates nicely with spiky astilbe 'Visions' fronds. Seed heads of sea oat grass dangle over the vase. A button of Japanese anemone rises from the center of the arrangement. Sedum 'Autumn Joy', of course. A frond of miscanthus. Air-dried 'Knockout' rose blossoms. All these, and more, adorn my winter vases each year. Their presence reminds me of the satisfaction derived from the gardening year gone by. The dried flowers provide a spark of interest in the days that are too short; the nights that are too cold. In their papery texture I sense the soil that grew them . The last bouquet of autumn sustains me, gives me the hope of a new year.

Spring will come again. The last bouquet of autumn proves it.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Garden Catalogues

At 2:30 yesterday afternoon I dropped my busy schedule of de-Christmasing the house, fixed a mug of cocoa, and settled into my favorite armchair with a pack of sticky notes and a grateful sigh.

The White Flower Farm spring catalogue had arrived.

Now, I do find WFF a bit overpriced, but their offerings are varied, the prose breezy, and the pictures, delectable. And they're from my corner of the world, just a bit north of here, in Litchfield, CT. My modus operandi with each of my favorite catalogues is to savor every page, circling plants such as hibiscus 'Sugar Tip' and buddleia 'Lo and Behold' that I planted last year and need to know more about. I note that such old favorites as hydrangea 'Preziosa' are back. I scan the annuals, and how they're grouped in pots. I chuckle at how expensive self sowers such as cleome and verbena bonariensis are this year. I jot musings on wished-for plants in my garden journal. The sticky notes mark catalogue pages to which I plan to return, and I've learned to write on the stickies what it is that's caught my attention. After half an hour or so the catalogue, now somewhat resembling a porcupine, goes on the shelf with other "keepers". This untidy bundle includes Bluestone Perennials , known for their impressive yet inexpensive selection of perennials; and of course, Park Seed, , and Burpee from whom I order many of the seed packets I use each year. ( This year I'm contemplating 'Heavenly Blue' morning glories, cardinal climber, and snapdragon 'Rocket'.)

Yes, the garden catalogues allow us to enter a different world on these deep winter days. A world where the ground is not frozen, where the deer turn up their snouts at our yard, and and where gardening dreams come true.

Bring 'em on!

Friday, January 2, 2009

The Garden Birds

We're off to a genuine winter here in southwestern CT; three significant snowfalls in two weeks brings to mind winters of years gone by, before global warming. The nights are cold, the daytime sun glints off the snow, and the birds are active at the feeders.

It's part of a gardener's imperative to care for their winged visitors. There are several ways we can do this:

Feeders are important, of course. I have two----a finch feeder on my back deck, kept full of a mixture of niger seed and sunflower chips. This one is generally busy with arguing juncos, olive-drab goldfinches and the occasional downy woodpecker. Attached to the deck rail, close to the hanging feeder, is a birdbath complete with an electric de-icer. I keep it filled and cleaned for the birds to drink. And they do. I've never seen them bathe in it, but they sure do drink the water. My best friend, Muriel, on the other hand.....she also keeps a bird bath going in her yard, and darn if she doesn't get bathing birds! Even in the dead of winter.

In the front yard I have an hopper-type feeder, with a perch that dumps off squirrels, and a metal baffle to further discourage them. This feeder is kept full of a mixture of cracked corn, hulled (to keep litter to a minimum) sunflower seed, peanut chips, dried fruit, and whatever else happens to be in the mix I purchase that week. (No millet) Attached to the feeder is a suet cake.

To this feeder & suet come an array of birds and wildlife. It sits directly outside my library window, so as I'm reading or writing I can glance out and see the action. We get cardinals; three different kinds of woodpeckers (red-bellied, downy, hairy); chickadees, blue jays, juncos, wrens, and many more.

Seed spills from the hopper, of course, and this ground bounty feeds the gray squirrels, occasional visiting pheasants, and assorted other wildlife.

What else can a gardener do to sustain the birds? Grow some berrying shrubs, viburnum for instance. Grow crabapples. Leave a few berry-producing wildlings such as pokeweed in the fringes of your yard. (Blubirds love 'em!) When you clean up your garden in the autumn, leave standing such perennials as rudbeckia to provide seeds and winter structure.

Birds add movement, color, sound, and a naturalness to the gardener's attempts to harness nature. They are a integral part of Nature's Design and, as we humans destroy their habitat, it's incumbent upon gardeners as stewards of the earth to do what we can to mitigate the damage.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Winter Composting

The back porch thermometer read a no-nonsense 6 degrees this morning as I trekked the few steps out to my winter compost container on the deck. Here in Connecticut, composting in the usual manner is impossible from early December 'til early March, as the ground is determinedly frozen.

But that's no reason to relinquish the pleasures of composting. After years of trying various methods of cold-weather recycling of my organic leftovers, here's what I've struck upon as the most successful.

Grab a 30-gallon plastic garbage can, drill holes in it all along the sides and the bottom. (very satisfying, wielding that drill!) Place the can on a deck, an unheated porch, or anywhere convenient for you and where marauding night critters aren't going to cause too much trouble. Commence composting.

That's all there is to it. Of course, you want to follow the basic rules, such as layering, not using bones or meat, etc. Two 30-gallon containers suffice for my household of two for the winter months, and I compost almost everything.......paper towels, soft-walled cardboard cartons, pet hair, coffee grounds, as well as the usual array of stale toast and soggy cereal.

An added benefit of winter composting is that after repeated freeze and thaw cycles, by spring the contents of the makeshift bin has turned into a rich slurry. One caveat-----the can will be heavy as you haul it to the regular compost pile.

But the lumpy, fertile mixture will jump start your warm weather composting; you'll have saved your winter organic garbage from the landfill, and you got lungfuls of brisk winter air most mornings.

What can be be better than that?