The Weekly Gardener
January through June 2015
A collection of weekly articles from
The Weekly Gardener
Shakespir Edition, License Notes.
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I would like to thank my blog readers whose continued interest gave me the confidence to keep writing. The Weekly Gardener started in June 2011, with Week 23.
The year started bleak and frigid, the freeze of Saint John regaled us with temperatures that amount to thirteen below, considering wind chill. Ice, snow, bitter weather, the works. I’m not complaining or anything, after all it’s January, its supposed to be cold.
Looking for a silver lining in the desolate landscape, well, for one, snow protects the perennials from freezing, so that’s a good thing. Snow also provides regular amounts of water, so necessary to the dormant plants, as it melts. And that’s all I have.
The image of seashells and sunny beaches brings up thoughts of summer, and this reminds me that I have to start planning next year’s garden; since the year promises to be a very good one, it’s even more important to be very selective about the new plants.
I wait to see some of the perennials I planted two autums ago come back from their roots, even if they died back in the summer, especially the Jack-in-the-pulpit and the honey scented bugbane, with its white and rose candle shaped inflorescences.
The spring garden will be a dream in yellow and blue, compliments of the out of sequence December daffodil planting and the abundance of cheerful violets and grape hyacinths that never disappoint.
I can hardly wait to see how the herb garden overwinters, all the herbs are perennial, including the lemon balm, I learned, and quite robust. Even though the lavender tends to be frost tender, its sunny, sheltered location bides well for its chances to thrive next year.
One herb casualty, I forgot to move the potted rosemary indoors and it succumbed to an early frost, so that’s one plant that needs replaced.
As I look out the window, I notice that the bitter cold mellowed a bit and gave way to a monotonous freezing rain. Lovely!
Thoughts at the beginning of the year
This year’s plans revolve around developing the tiny gardens that have started taking shape around the foundation walls and in the shade of the deciduous trees.
A shaded corner isn’t usually the gardener’s dream, but the challenge of creating abundance in an otherwise barren and uninspiring spot is impossible to resist. Fear not, eager green thumbs, for the effort you put forth into finding out what would grow in less than ideal conditions brings with it the prize of a relaxing nook for the sweltering summer days.
Contrary to my initial expectations, there is a wide array of plants that thrive and bloom in all kinds of shade, so let me list a few that I a had great experience with in my clay soil; all plants are low maintenance and grow healthier from year to year.
Sweet woodruff - beautiful texture, will grow anywhere, just like ivy and vinca, with the added benefit that its foliage is fragrant.
Bugleweed - a plant that looks great all year long, with very dark leaves that sometimes pick up a coppery sheen. Its bloom is surprisingly abundant, even in full shade, and its candle shaped blue and lavender flowers last all the month of May and half of June. It spreads eagerly by runners, and if you let it, it will quickly cover wide areas, which makes it useful for ground covers.
Sweet Violets - they bloom with abandon in anything other than deep shade. Careful, they will take over if you let them, but with the heart shaped leaves and the heart melting flowers, you won't mind.
Coral bells - the young plants start blooming in spring and keep the garden lush with pink flowers till the end of fall.
Navelwort - beautiful foliage, dreamy baby blue blossoms, like those of forget me not, spreads freely, virtually no maintenance. Great for tree underplantings.
Foam flowers - really thrive in full shade and can be used to populate impossible dry northern corners with heavy soils.
Last, but not least, the faithful hostas, whose fragrant flowers often compete with the scent of the lilies.
All the plants above are fast growers and respond very well to dividing, so you can put together a charming shade retreat from plant stock you already have in no time at all.
I walked on the beach and took pictures of the boundless offerings the ocean dumped onto the shore, occasionally startling the water birds who checked their yummy treasure eagerly, excited about fresh delicacies.
Such an abundance of life was teaming at the water’s edge, in the salt water marshes, the bird habitat, the ocean, the sky!
Of the sea
Believe it or not, this is not a clam shell, it is a miniature habitat, there are several varieties of tiny mussels and water snails embedded in the thorny shell, nature’s way of bedazzling its work.
The spiny shell and its tenants are completely fused together, and I stared wide mouth at the ensemble for a while, wondering what processes facilitated the making of this curious treasure.
My beloved cyclamen must have decided it really likes its pot and its location on the window sill, because it gets bigger and blooms more abundantly every year. This one, year five, must be its best yet
I’m not used to seeing enthusiastic bloom from my potted plants, it’s just one of those things I learned to accept over the years, so this glut of flowers took me a little by surprise.
It’s worth repeating that cyclamens go dormant and die back to the ground during summer, at which time they’re usually discarded. Don’t throw them away! As soon as September comes around the healthy heart shaped foliage of their little clumps comes back eagerly, and by the time Christmas comes around again their dark green leaves are topped by a cheerful mass of pink flowers.
This year they’ve outdone themselves. Why? Who is to say? Maybe it’s the sunshine. Maybe it’s the Miracle Grow. Maybe they just started liking me more.
The Persian Cyclamen is a native of the Mediterranean shores, where it enjoys mild winters, and it grows in abundance all around this sea’s basin, from Algeria to Israel and from Crete to Greece; here they are exclusively indoor plants unless you live in a climate zone warmer than zone ten.
If you do happen to live in a climate like that, you’re in luck, because they grow well in dry shade. If not, don’t miss out on growing them in your little garden on the window sill. What other plant is going to spoil you with flowers like these in the middle of January?
I got this aloe plant for medicinal purposes, since aloe gel is a wonderful moisturizer and a great first aid balm for minor scrapes and burns.
At first I couldn’t bring myself to harvest any of its tiny leaves, I thought it needed all of its foliage to adjust to the new location and stabilize what looked like a very unsure bearing, easily uprooted.
It tripled over a couple of years, and now it’s growing so strong I can’t believe it is the same plant. I still hesitate to harvest its leaves, I don’t want to upset its balance. Soon I’ll probably have too, just after I repot it into a much larger container, because it is getting too big and heavy for the one it’s in already!
If you never used unprocessed aloe vera before, it is nothing like the smooth gel at the supermarket, the one that comes in a bottle and has been homogenized and thinned a little to improve its texture. Raw aloe vera gel is clumpy, slimy and stringy, and it sticks to your hands in a way that is not altogether pleasant, but once mixed into an ointment it is pure health in a jar: it smoothes roughness, hydrates, heals minor ailments, cools sunburn, balances combination skin, tightens and imparts a dewy glow to any complexion.
Aloe vera is as good for your insides as it is for your skin, but between the stringy, mucilaginous consistency, the sharp bitterness, and its laxative effects, I’m probably going to pass on using it internally. It offers great benefits for your health, though, if you are willing to get past the fact that it’s really unpalatable: it is chock full of vitamins, helps clean your liver, like any bitter, restores your electrolyte balance, hydrates and alleviates small irritations inside your digestive tract.
I wonder how big it is going to get?
I’m so glad I made a last minute decision to bring this strange beauty indoors at the end of fall. I’m not even sure I needed to, it may very well be hardy to this zone, but I didn’t want to take any chances.
I’m very curious to see the flowers, it didn’t bloom last year. Usually plants with spectacular foliage don’t do much in terms of bloom, but when you deal with living things every time you think you found a rule, an exception to said rule is never far behind.
Happy to see it thriving, spending the warm season on the patio did it a world of good. Full sun exposure restored its foliage and now it looks healthy, even if it doesn’t usually appreciate spending winter indoors.
Citrus trees crave the heat of their subtropical climate and start flourishing almost instantly under your astonished eyes the moment you bring them outside to enjoy sunlight and fresh air. Looking forward to spring, maybe this year it will bloom! It is eight years old, and started from seed.
This is what I love about gardening, there is always something new and exciting to learn! I got this plant expecting it to perform like the tuberous begonias I’m used to. The latter are rightfully called the roses of the shade because of their large, full and lush flowers that last and last… I didn’t know why this particular plant didn’t bloom over the summer, so I blamed my predicament on the heavy soil or diminished sun exposure and hoped to see flowers next year in a different location.
It turns out this is not a tuberous begonia, but a rhizomatous begonia. What’s the difference? The master gardener will of course point out that the nomenclature variance all but screams the former grow from tubers and the latter grow from rhizomes, but these are the kind of details a starry eyed green thumb tends to overlook. They look the same, they grow the same, but tuberous begonias love the warm temperature range, which is why they bloom in summer and go dormant in winter, while rhizomatous begonias love the cool temperature range, which is why they rest in summer and bloom in winter. What an extraordinary strike of luck that I decided to pot it and bring it indoors at the last minute, right before the first killing frost!
Rhizomatous begonias are tropical plants, like cyclamens, and need the same climate zones, ten and above, to thrive, but unlike the cyclamens, begonias use the summer and fall for active growth; this explains why my unfussy and easy to grow plant displayed stunning black foliage amidst the burgundy and amber coral bells from May till October.
Their flowers appear in late winter and early spring, in delicate sprays, rosy and speckled with red dots, and the blossoms bear no resemblance to those of their showy summer cousins’.
Just in case you decide to add this pretty plant to your winter garden, a few things about its likes and dislikes: only water when the soil dries up, plant in a shallow pot, preferably a clay one, keep foliage away from direct sunshine, but provide bright indirect light. It likes cool temperatures, between sixty and seventy degrees, and slows its growth at the beginning of winter, when feeding is not recommended. During the growing season it benefits from a good all purpose fertilizer.
I think this variety is called “Cleopatra”, but I could be mistaken, there are so many black leaved begonias! They can be propagated just like irises and bleeding hearts, by breaking off and replanting small pieces of their rhizomes when they surface and start growing new foliage.
The snow showers gave way to a bright and cheerful winter sun, in as much as winter sun can be cheerful.
The long shadows cast on the snow reminded me that my clock/sun path project is still in its planning stage. Winter would have been a perfect opportunity to test whether the sun paths work correctly, but the rough prototype is made of cardboard and it wouldn’t withstand precipitation and variations in temperature.
In the absence of said device, I’m left staring at the long January shadows and acknowledging that the sun is moving lower on the firmament at this time of year, as expected.
In winter, a periwinkle blue sky during the day and brilliant hues of pink, orange and purple on the horizon at dusk usually indicate nippy temperatures, so I’m very happy to admire the beauty of nature through the window.
Fortunately the thick blanket of snow will protect the plants and provide plentiful water to help them establish their roots. There is always a silver lining…
Ugh, it’s still January! I don’t trust that groundhog: it sees its shadow, it doesn’t see its shadow, it goes back to its burrow anyway.
Snow on magnolias
Even though I know this evergreen southern beauty is hardy to zone five (tested in my own garden, it brushed off at least five severe winters with temperatures in the single digits and prolonged periods of freezing temperatures) I’m always a little taken aback to see snow on its tropical foliage.
It doesn’t usually change all its leaves at the same time, unless they get freeze burn. So far it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen this year.
Fresh snow always makes the garden photogenic, so I went out for a little bit to take these pictures. The immaculate background puts even the most prosaic garden details in their best light, I can’t imagine what other circumstances would help garner excitement over barren tree branches!
I can’t wait for winter to be over, though, what a tedious season! Cold, drab, monochrome bore.
If you are a dedicated green thumb, all you do after winter begins is sit around and wait for it to be over. Two long months of dreary weather later, the sight of spring catalogs gracing your mailbox is a hopeful sign of better days to come. Some people go by the buds on the trees, others by the first crocuses, I go by the arrival of spring catalogs.
Be happy and joyful, my fellow gardeners, I already have six of them, spring is nigh!
They are my yearly indulgence and I study them to the last detail, just to make sure I’m not missing that special plant that would be just perfect for one of the empty spots I didn’t fill last year. Did you know there are yellow peonies? Summer daffodils? White strawberries? Blue lilies? Every year there is something new and exciting to plant, oh, the temptation, the temptation…
I will pick a few, I just know it, I won’t be able to resist them, but this is why I need a full afternoon to study the catalogs thoroughly.
Last year I added a couple of chocolate vines, whose foliage succumbed to an overenthusiastic attempt to eliminate non-existent black spot. I just hope the plants will go easy on me for the fungicide blunder and come back from the roots.
Usually the shade garden has priority, because its dwellers are slow to grow or start from seed and there is always an appealing foxtail, monkshood or jack-in-the-pulpit beckoning from the shiny pages.
This seems to be the year for dahlias, maybe I’ll try them for once, and so I don’t have to dig them up in the fall, I’ll plant them in pots.
I didn’t go through my seed box yet, but there is still plenty of time, at least a couple more weeks until I can bring out the starting trays.
Last year I got a lot of plants that preferred to be planted directly outdoors and had to wait until the end of April for the unseasonably cold weather to go away. Again, speaking of lessons learned, this year I’ll do the opposite, to give most of the plants a good head start regardless of when the last frost decides to visit.
I still have the results of previous’ years efforts thriving in the front yard: a couple of healthy delphiniums, one glorious Maltese cross, pink lupines, a sea of violets and more wild bleeding hearts than I can count.
Growing perennials from seed proved to be somewhat difficult, their germination rate is generally lower and they take a lot longer to get established, but the benefits of starting a few hard to find perennials greatly outweigh the annoyance factor of them being hit or miss.
I have a couple of favorites I never managed to start and I try them every year, out of sheer stubbornness, Canterbury bells and carnations. I will of course try them again this year too, you know what they say, if at first you don’t succeed…
I will start a lot of marigolds this spring, at least they are a sure thing, because I want to make the vegetable garden pretty. And some Saint John’s Wort, the real one this time.
I planted some daffodils and some grape hyacinths, purple, I think, during the month of December, yes, that is not a typo. They will be joined as soon as the weather mellows by a deep lavender hyacinth that now graces a pot on the window sill.
I didn’t add a lot of bulbs last fall, the ones I planted over the years are just starting to settle in and get comfortable with their surroundings. Depending on which groundhog you believe, we’ll see their flowers soon enough, but for now it’s still too cold.
Lessons learned from last year’s, shall we say, not so successful attempt to grow vegetables in hanging baskets: cucumbers and squashes don’t do well in containers. Eggplants and peppers do well in containers, provided the containers are large enough.
Tomatoes will take over the universe regardless of their circumstances and no matter how sturdy the supports, they’ll topple them over come September. Kitchen herbs like clay. I would like to try a new vegetable this year, how about chards or celery?
It is planting time, and I got the Canterbury bells and the carnation seeds again, because I’m stubborn. I wised up and picked different varieties, who knows, maybe this year they’ll germinate.
The rest of the selection is unpretentious and reliable: zinnias, marigolds, snapdragons, cleomes and lupines. They’re going to make a colorful summer border in shades of purple and orange.
Now we wait. Not too long, mind you, the covered trays speed up germination to an amazing three days.
The medicinal plants are still at the nursery, waiting to be selected. I took a brave stroll through the garden and noted that not even the earliest of bloomers are ready to start the season. It was freezing, too, so no luck there!
During said garden walk I kicked myself again for not moving the pink peony and noted that the roses didn’t look too comfortable with the continuing chill, I hope I don’t end up with a garden full of Doctor Huey, even though they are prolific bloomers.
Aside from the planned plantings I expect there will be enthusiastic volunteers: French mallows, calendulas and love-in-a-mist, and a vigorous broad leaved biennial I couldn’t recognize last summer.
I looked far and wide for signs of spring, which is a testimony to my undying optimism, and there is nothing, nothing, I tell you! Not even a little shivering primrose, or a tentative daffodil, just nothing on ice with a side of leafless trees. As it very well should be, what self-respecting plant would consider sprouting in single digit temperatures?
In view of the seasonal gloom, I turn my attention to decadent, unabashed pampering: moisturizing oils, nourishing face and hair masks, nail treatments, the world is my spa.
That’s where the essential oils come in, they can turn prosaic kitchen fats into superior skin care products in seconds. Coconut oil, almond oil and avocado oil are rich in the vitamins the skin craves, sink in quickly and leave it soft, supple and silky. If you add to this the essential oils with their active ingredients and delightful fragrance, you can almost forget nature is so unfair that it made winter last three months.
I blended sweet violet essence in half a cup of peanut oil and ended up with a luxurious make-up remover/moisturizer and instant aromatherapy in a bottle! It is a beautiful cobalt blue bottle too, with a stylish artisanal label, I’ve got a finished product right there, I’m so proud of myself! Tedious weather be gone!
You don’t need to use essential oils for their therapeutic value, the self-indulgent enjoyment of your favorite fragrance will enhance your well-being just as much.
When using essential oils keep in mind they are very concentrated and will irritate your skin if not properly diluted. A proportion of no more than 3% of essential to base oil works best.
If you were wondering what ice crystals look like at sub-zero temperatures, here’s a picture. No flourish, just a jagged and repetitive geometry reminiscent of glass shards.
When it gets this cold, you can’t even feel it anymore, I guess the nerve endings below the skin’s surface get numb and can’t tell your brain you’re slowly freezing solid, you just notice the burn and how everything around you all of a sudden gets quiet and very very still.
In full bloom
In contrast, the winter blooming begonia is just starting. I still can’t believe my luck, but am quickly getting used to it.
I was wondering what the flowers looked like, they are very similar to those of wax begonias.
How does it bloom so? It’s the selfless dedication of the caretaker, of course, the love, the attention, the horticultural knowledge… Ok, it’s the Miracle Grow! I’d feed it some more, but I don’t want to burn its roots.
Knee deep in snow
First, I’ll point out the obvious: the snow cover from last week and the week before that is still here and is not going to melt because the temperatures have stayed consistently below freezing. If this keeps up, The Weekly Gardener is going to become The Weekly Totally Unrelated Subject.
I can’t force myself to get annoyed, as we all know, no matter how mad you get at the weather, the weather doesn’t care. Just to distract myself, I checked out again this year’s long range weather predictions from the Farmer’s Almanac, whose accuracy is simply uncanny. If you don’t believe me, for yourself.
Anyway, since they got November, January and February right almost to the precise temperature, I’m going to swoon with anticipation about April and May and get lost in happy reveries of hot, dry summer days and long warm fall months blessed with rain. It seems we’re going to skip the late killing frost this year, who would have thunk it?
I’ll probably revisit my enthusiasm for hot dry weather when it finally comes along, although the plants are always happy to welcome it, just as long as you dote on them faithfully and water them twice a day.
Speaking of coddled summer loving plants, don’t forget to pre-order bare root roses, ‘tis the season!
Activities for cold winter days when you can’t believe it’s seven below
Do you want to treat yourself to a bit of lavish overindulgence that is not illegal, immoral or fattening? Goodness knows the last thing we all need during this dull and depressing month is to match it with equally dull winter skin.
You probably already have some, if not all, of the following ingredients in your kitchen: quick oats, honey, cornmeal, lemon, milk, yogurt or cream, salt, baking soda, oil, brown sugar, eggs, fresh fruit, almond meal, a bowl and a whisk. Almost any combination of these will turn out a very effective face mask, moisturizer or exfoliating paste. Since making your own recipe is half the enjoyment of this home spa treatment, I’m not going to suggest combinations, but rather outline the skin benefits each of the ingredients provide.
Honey is a wonderful moisturizer and skin balancing agent. It is slightly more acidic than the skin’s natural PH, so it is an effective exfoliator. It draws moisture in to give the complexion a dewy appearance and supports the invisible barrier of fatty acids and beneficial bacteria that keeps skin glowing and blemish free.
Egg yolk is rich in protein, A and B vitamins, and zinc to keep acne under control, and its cholesterol content makes the transfer of said nutrients to your skin extremely easy. Egg whites shrink pores.
Milk is skin softening and dissolves dead cells, which makes it particularly beneficial for sensitive, thin or dry skin that can’t tolerate scrubs. Yogurt and lemon are bleaching agents and of course lemon works wonders to restore nails to health.
Oats, cornmeal, almond meal, salt, brown sugar and baking soda are gentle and effective exfoliating agents. The first three, in combination with nourishing and moisturizing products like milk, egg or honey, can be used both as a scrub and as a mask. Be careful with exfoliating agents if your skin is irritable or prone to broken capillaries. Sugar is slightly gritty and contains glycolic acids, which makes it a good exfoliator by both abrasion and chemical means.
Oil restores the skin’s lipid balance. Since many make-up products are water proof, it is the safest, most effective substance to remove them. It also loosens the dirt that tends to build up on skin throughout the day and clog the pores. Your choice of oils is extensive: some prefer the lightness and highly absorbable feel of grape seed, almond, or peanut oil, but if you can tolerate the heavier quality of olive or avocado oil, their rich vitamin and mineral content makes them worth this slight annoyance factor.
Fresh fruits, like peaches, pineapples, papaya or strawberries, are slightly acidic and contain enzymes that dissolve dead skin. They act as gentle chemical peels, toners and astringents.
You might have noticed that all of the ingredients above are edible. In a pinch your morning oatmeal can double as a glorious face mask just the way it is. Just make sure it’s made from scratch and not too hot.
Today the temperatures rose to a sweltering twenty eight degrees from the depths of negative six where they’ve been lingering for the last couple of weeks.
The snow blanket slimmed down to about half of yesterday’s thickness. Since it’s very unlikely that it melted at these temperatures, I assume it sublimated. The thought of instantly freezing water vapor makes me uncomfortable, it’s one thing to see your breath, quite another to watch it kick you in the face.
February garden chores
It sounds like an oxymoron because winter gardening tasks were artificially created by wise gardeners of olden times in order to keep us distracted from the fact that we can’t do anything garden related for some time yet. The ground is frozen solid, the perennials are dormant and the door sticks to the door frame, it is what it is.
If you enjoy alphabetizing the garden tools and polishing the pruning sheers to a mirror finish, by all means! I’ll just sit here and brood.
Cure for the unrelenting blah
In anticipation of good weather I’m already planning some gardening activities, there are summer bulbs to be planted and perennials beds to be cleaned up for spring.I took a stroll through the back yard this morning, and even though most of the snow is still there, I can feel nature breathe in the spring sun. After plodding through day after day, bullied by cloudy skies and bone chilling temperatures, I almost forgot how beautiful the garden is, how exhilarating it is to feel it warm up and try to guess the fresh growth right under the soil surface, almost ready to breach it.
A few daring bulbs decided to brave bitter temperatures last week, and their green shoots are already poking through the wet dirt towards the sun. The flower beds are going to need a good dose of spring cleaning, but I don’t care! After so much winter drudgery I would clean them twice without complaining, just to be out there and watch the plants grow.
This may be a case of “be careful what you wish for”: the southern magnolia looks like it’s going to lose all its foliage again, the late subfreezing temperatures did it in. And oh, boy, can that tree shed!
I’m literally watching snow melt, the twenty five degree temperature jump will make that happen in a matter of minutes, not hours.
Someting to look forward to
I need to speed up the garden planning if I don’t want the roses to leaf out before I get a chance to prune them. See? This is why the wiser gardeners of olden times like to do all the preparation work while mercury is frozen in the thermometer, spring tends to sneak up on you.
Of course now I’m late with the seed starting, spring cleaning, bulb planting, plant ordering, and pretty much everything else.
I know, I know, March tends to be a fickle friend. During the years when this month is actually nice (we haven’t had a lot of those of late), it lolls you into a false sense of security and kicks you in the shins right at the end, just when you thought summer was finally in sight. I’m not planning on moving anything frost tender outside any time soon, but I can’t contain my excitement. Finally, warmth!
A full week of temperatures above fifty and sixty degrees pretty much guarantees fully developed perennial flower beds in days. I don’t know if the spring bulbs will have enough time to spring in full bloom, but definitely the foliage will be well established a week from now.
I almost can’t believe it, like I haven’t experienced warm weather before. The last two or three years got us stuck in a pattern of never ending winter, which wiped out all the usual early spring growth and did a lot of damage to established plants at their most vulnerable time, mid-spring. We seem to have escaped the scourge of weather this year, fingers crossed.
It looks like the weather is finally turning and I can hardly wait to see the daffodils I planted last December. Such weird weather patterns we had this winter, I never planted spring bulbs so late!
If the predictions hold, next week all the snow is going to melt, and with temperatures in the fifties and sixties, the plants will fill up very quickly. It is spring after all!
Buttercups are modest flowers, but they have two great qualities: they are early and they are cheerful. Their clumps vanish as soon as springs moves into summer, so they are perfect candidates for bulb layering.
They are more impactful in mass, but I only planted a few and they aren’t quick to spread. I’m glad they took to their place; if they’re happy I’m sure they’ll multiply.
Strange and wonderful
Another one of those evenings you are not quite sure were real. It was warm yesterday, almost seventy degrees, with a sky the color of fire. Soft breeze and so quiet! Hard to tell the season, but you sure wouldn’t guess late winter.
The garden is still asleep and in the balmy air suffused with purple orange glow I didn’t understand why. Everything in the surroundings conspired to defy reality, from the eerie silence with watercolor clouds to the absence of air movement.
There should be spring bulbs, it is too warm for them not to be, the whole season is out of sequence, put together like a collage.
Under the thin layer of barren leaves only the hellebores ventured to push through new foliage, the hellebores, almost two months late!
The yard debris bothers me but I wonder if I should wait to clean it up, to give the plants a little more protection if another chill comes around. It’s strange that the vegetation is dragging its feet, the garden seems in no rush to come back to life, no buds on the trees, no leaves on the rose shrubs, no spring flowers. I wonder why.
It got cold again this morning, and the lower temperatures brought with them a morose sky, one that matches the season.
The little seedlings I started indoors sprouted. They are tiny, but healthy, and not nearly half of what I have planned for this year. I wish cold weather was finally over!
This years’ is going to be a purple garden, at least that was the design intent: purple zinnias, purple lupines, purple Canterbury bells. I am indeed that stubborn, planting the latter every year, despite reliably disappointing results. This year rewarded my stubbornness: both the Canterbury bells and carnation seeds have sprouted.
To complement the purple theme there will be plenty of fiery marigolds sprinkled around the flower beds. Some of them will adorn the vegetable garden, but then again, this is one of their traditional uses.
Every year I worry about the roses, and this year is no different. They don’t show any signs of coming out of hibernation. I would be concerned for the tea roses if the rugosas were already budding, but they are not. I’m not sure when exactly nature decides it’s warm enough for them to leaf out, but it certainly isn’t now.
I can hardly wait to see how the divisions from last year are going to fare. If they all adjusted to their new location the flower beds should be bursting with new garden phlox, daisies, irises and geraniums.
There be flowers! Most of them purple. I feel like I planted yesterday’s sky.
Sunset in Wonderland
I’m trying to figure out if there is any winter damage in the garden, it has been unseasonably cold at the end of winter. I can’t tell yet, it’s too early.
I know the Southern magnolia is going to lose all its foliage again, which is too bad, because it made it all the way to the end of February with green leaves. Sadly it doesn’t bloom much when it needs to replace all of its leaves.
I started the seedlings really late, but nature has its way to adjust plant growth. Whether planted early or late, they are grown and ready to plant until mid-April anyway.
Last year the tomato plants were so small I didn’t think they’d make it at all, and they still managed to take over the garden and smother all the other veggies. I hope to find a different location for them this year.
Hepatica has been considered a medicinal plant in the past, but this is one of the cases where scientific reasoning needs to override lore: the plant belongs to the Ranunculaceae family, just like the buttercup, and contains the same toxic compounds, albeit in much smaller doses. Hepatica is poisonous in large quantities. It is occasionally used in homeopathy, but this is definitely not something safe to do at home.
They are very resilient, early and fragrant too!
The name sprung from the false belief the plant could heal liver afflictions, belief fueled by the strange similarity between some hepatica varieties’ foliage and the color of the liver itself.
They are among the first flowers to bloom in spring, and the flowers precede the new foliage by a couple of weeks at least. Established hepaticas put forth cheerful clumps of flowers for a month or so, when the rest of the garden doesn’t have much to show for itself.
They are wildflowers and mix well with other woodland natives, wild bleeding hearts, crocuses, trilliums and grape hyacinths.
This specific plant is a survivor: during the first year I plucked it while weeding, and the second year the drought almost got it, but it lived to get established and beautify the garden with more and more pretty flowers each spring. Last fall I divided it and moved some to a new flower bed, where it seems to do well. I’ll be careful not to pluck it this time.
Its foliage is attractive too, the broad trilobate leaves, shiny and bright green, bring interesting texture to the part shade flower bed through the summer and fall.
Guess which were the first flowers to bloom this year? Spring finally made up its mind, not before one last fluffy snow. Despite this desperate attempt, winter lost its power and the wet blanket swiftly melted to provide the plants with welcome moisture.
Every day I take a trip through the garden to see if anything decided to come out yet. The daffodils broke ground, so that makes it officially spring. There are leaf buds on the clematis and tiny leaves on the sweet violets. That’s the extent of what I can see, because I didn’t get to the spring cleaning and the flower beds are covered in whatever grunge accumulated over the winter.
Every time I plan to spruce them up, a new installment of inclement weather ensues, so I have to leave them be for now, even if their disheveled looks gnaw at my conscience.
The buttercups managed to emerge from under a pile of dried pine needles, more power to them! In the still barren garden, among shades of brown and gray, their sunny flowers shine even brighter, drawing all the attention.
While researching buttercups, the first thing that emerged regarding this pretty flowers was that they were poisonous. I took notice. The default is not to ingest a plant unless you know for a fact that it is edible anyway. I’ll just add them to the long list of beautiful flowers and foliage also poisonous: lily of the valley, azaleas, clematis, boxwood, caladiums, irises, lantana, foxgloves, monkshood, datura, morning glory, jasmine, delphiniums, lilies, sweet peas, wisteria and last but not least the poetic jonquils.
Usually not being good to eat is a feature for a plant in the flower garden, it ensures the gardener doesn’t have to perpetually replant, but don’t touch your eyes or mouth after handling buttercups, it appears their sap is irritating.
One of the rare moments when I managed to catch this flower facing the sky. They are shy beauties, the Painted Lady hellebores, bashfully looking down to hide their wine stained butter cream petals from the prying eye.
As if that weren’t enough, they slide their blossoms under a mass of leathery foliage where the light green exterior of their petals makes them almost impossible to spot.
Here come the reinforcements for my purple garden scheme, only a couple of months late.
If you don’t have hellebores in your shade garden, you are missing out on four months of sustained bloom, showy evergreen foliage and a plant you really never have to feed or water. They are prolific reseeders too, last spring I populated an entire flower bed with their offspring.
When you start looking into its qualities, rosemary can be quite intimidating, it seems to be good for everything: it makes hair grow strong and shiny, rejuvenates skin, boosts memory and concentration, sharpens eyesight, thins the blood and helps lower the risk of cancer. The impressive resume is due to the fact that this blessed plant is rich in iron, calcium, phosphorus, vitamins A, C and B6, folate, and some other plant specific compounds that act synergistically.
Of course this is not why I couldn’t get out of the garden center without two small rosemary pots, that happened because I love its flavor, I can’t leave a plant nursery without becoming the proud owner of something green and leafy and the very healthy rosemary bush I was planning to overwinter succumbed to a surprise early freeze last fall.
Dried rosemary doesn’t hold a candle to the fresh sprigs which are succulent and fragrant and go with chicken, fish, pork, lamb, and almost any sauce, soup or stew, so there’s that reason…
I got used to having a pot of rosemary around, it is so green and fresh, it lifts my spirits and looks like the picture of health.
This doesn’t explain the lemon verbena and a couple of seed packets that just happened to join it. I couldn’t help it, ok? They had every garden herb, temptation was everywhere, within arm’s reach, thyme, lavender, a gazillion mints, tarragon, parsley, you name it, they had it. It was just too much, I’m only human…
Since plant foliage usually doesn’t come in this hue, even for the namesake plant itself, and this is the first time lavender came out of winter looking alive, I didn’t know if this was old growth I should prune or evergreen growth I should leave alone, so I looked up lavender care online.
There are conflicting opinions about the correct way to prune a lavender shrub, some say you should prune it after it blooms, to keep the plant bushy and compact, others that it is slow to put out new growth and trimming leafless branches sets it back and doesn’t allow it to thrive.
I’m going to use my own rule of thumb, which is: if you don’t know how and when to prune a plant, don’t improvise. Lavender made it through eons of evolution all by itself, I’m sure it will be just fine without my help, even if it might grow a little leggy.
I’m so excited to have perennial lavender in the herb garden, this must be the English variety, the more resilient one. The lemon balm, chamomile and thyme are also alive and well, it looks like a good maintenance regimen is all that’s needed.
Today the breeze felt balmy and tropical and it carried a delicate unidentifiable fragrance. I don’t want the vegetation to struggle under winter debris, so I’ll speed up the cleaning schedule, spring can sweep in so suddenly.
Tuberose in bloom
I brought the tuberoses indoors to protect them over the winter, but I didn’t expect them to bloom. First I thought my eyes were deceiving me, but no, they really are blooming.
In all honesty I don’t understand their enthusiasm, I pretty much ignored them and left it up to nature to take care of them while they were outside in summer, and barely watered them since I brought them indoors. They are in full August mode right now…
I got a really good crop of seedlings this year, very reliable germination and healthy growth. The tomatoes popped out first, like always, but it seems that I might have some luck with the Canterbury bells and carnations too.
I started them kind of late, but four more weeks will get them where they need to be at planting time. Half of the seeds are still in packets, to be sown directly in the garden.
I woke up to wonderful booms of thunder and lightning flashing through the sky early in the morning. Instant happiness. The air was so warm, humid, and charged with electricity, that it felt like the middle of June. I almost expected to find a lush summer garden when I went out the door.
I love the rain. Not the miserable November drizzle that can’t make up its mind whether to freeze or not, but the powerful downpours of summer, when the gloomy sky is ripped open by thunderbolts and the rain falls to the earth in sheets, not drops, and you can hear its drumbeat on the roof.
If you have been gardening for a while, the sheer amount of energy nature puts out to generate a summer storm humbles you. You can almost feel the plants’ eagerness for rain, and you get a little jealous, because you just watered them, not an hour ago.
You can’t compete with the water from the skies and millions of years of plant evolution, and the powerful downpour makes you feel like a sparrow hatching condor eggs.
I went to the garden and came to terms with the fact that it is still March, and the expectations of luxuriant foliage were a little
The plant world provides its own stemware for winged visitors. The flower cups usually hold only a few drops of dew, more than enough for a tired humming bird or a thirsty butterfly, but after the rain they are filled to the brim and ready to tip over.
Spring is reluctant this year, but the buds on the trees have finally started swelling. A few days of steady rain brought most of the plants out of hibernation.
I’m checking the flower beds every day to see signs of more perennials coming back to life: the chocolate vine, the clematis, the cranesbills.
One of my part shade flower beds suddenly turned into a full sun border after the removal of a tree, and I hover around it constantly, thinking what plants to add, what plants to move. Full sun exposure is a rare and coveted feature in my garden, all the more reason to be thrilled about it.
I should get the seedlings out a few hours at a time, to harden them, but they are still so tiny and the weather is capricious. I really started them late this year, but hopefully another month will get them where they need to be.
It started raining again, what a blessing!
I knew it would happen, it happens every spring: weather went from arctic to balmy suddenly, and now the plants are way ahead of me. I have yet to start spring cleaning.
It rained a little, then went frosty again, then back to warm rain. Not all of the plants are comfortable with this hot and cold treatment, but quite a few of them are slowly starting to come out. This lovely beauty is leading the efforts, but the daffodils aren’t far behind now.
I am excited, because it the time of my favorite garden perennials, the bleeding hearts. The clumps grow so fast they make your head spin, going from nothing to full shrub in bloom before you had the chance to think “spring”.
They are going to produce flowers any moment now. They don’t usually wait to develop their foliage first, they just grow everything at once – stems, leaves, flowers. The rain helped.
Ajuga reptans, bugleweed, is a fail proof groundcover for any sun exposure or soil type. I started with its Latin name because I always thought it sounded more patrician and better suited to this plants’ sophistication.
I love bugleweed, it is a versatile plant which helped me bring back to life several locations with dry shade where few other plants thrive. It tends to get invasive in full sun exposure and rich soils.
The plant blooms freely for almost two months mid-spring, with delicate spears of lavender-blue flowers. It is especially vibrant in full sun to part shade conditions, but it will flower freely in the shade too, if only a little later.
It forms dense patches of thick foliage that stay low to the ground and turn charming shades of purple and copper when the weather gets hot and dry. The plant is beautiful all year round, and it protects its territory fiercely: there are no weeds in a bugleweed patch, it won’t allow them access to the light.
Bugleweed spreads quickly, which makes it very useful as a fast groundcover, but is not difficult to uproot, if you want to tame its enthusiastic growth or move it somewhere else.
It tolerates drought, sub-zero temperatures, poor soils, shade, heavy clay, crowding, neglect, and it is pretty too. Should I say more?
If you have a sunny slope that is difficult to mow, in a location with well drained, sandy soil, try a chamomile lawn.
The delightful apple scent is a reward in itself, and using chamomile as a groundcover offers some advantages, like low mowing, feeding and watering needs, but the plant is definitely not low maintenance.
To make life easier, chose a low growing, non-flowering variety that has been bred specifically for this purpose. This hybrid variety will not go to seed, for obvious reasons, so you will need to purchase the plants and/or propagate them by division in spring. The plants have to be spaced 12 to 18 inches apart, which requires patience with the spotty look until they fill out.
If you select a species variety, which does come true from seed, you’ll have the benefits of reseeding, but the plants grow too tall and you’ll have to shear the spent flowers unfailingly, otherwise the lawn develops bare patches. Make sure the spot you are covering is weed free: regular weed killers are too harsh for this groundcover, so the weeds will have to be plucked by hand or you need to apply spot treatment.
Chamomile doesn’t like wet feet, especially in winter, but it doesn’t mind heavy soils if they have good drainage and full sun exposure. The established lawn is quite long lived and will tolerate light foot traffic after the first year.
I have tried growing chamomile for years, as a medicinal plant, not a ground cover, but didn’t have much luck with the annual variety. This time I planted Roman chamomile and it seems to have overwintered beautifully. I’m thrilled!
Blue flowers in spring
I’m always surprised to see the delphiniums leaf out among the first perennials of spring. Their foliage looks so tender and fragile surrounded by dried up sticks and barren shrubs, I keep forgetting they are hardy to zone three.
They are quite resilient, if they like their location, they are just not very long lived and don’t tolerate drought well. They are supposed to live around five years and need a lot of food for those spectacular blossoms. These flowers grow six foot tall and they usually need staking. Cut the spent blossoms if you want to keep them blooming throughout the summer.
Healthy lemon balm
You can’t imagine a more relaxing or more flavorful herbal tea! Lemon balm is perfect for relieving anxiety and promoting a restful sleep. Its citrusy flavor is very pleasant, the only drawback is that you have to use fresh leaves, just picked if possible. Lemon balm is one of those herbs that loses its flavor and its effectiveness when dried.
This makes it a must have in the garden, so it can be harvested as needed. Once established it’s not fussy at all, mine came out of winter twice the size it was last fall, despite the subzero temperatures. Got to love herbs!
A quick trip through the garden is a wonderful opportunity to let one’s mind wonder, and the latest one generated the following musings.
I really can’t put off cleaning even a day longer, the dried up goldenrod looks simply distressing. What was I thinking when I sowed it at the front of the border will probably be a question for the ages, judging by its undefeatable vigor. I don’t have the heart to pull it, especially at the end of summer, when its masses of yellow flowers create quite an attractive look, but every spring its tall and scraggily sticks scream out that it’s really not a garden plant. Now I have to till out the equivalent of virgin land, and it makes me feel like a pioneer.
I forgot to get Saint John’s wort, again. I hope it’s not too late, at least for planting it directly in the garden. It is perennial, it will figure things out.
No buds on the roses, not great. Maybe it’s too early.
There may be spring bulbs coming out under that mass of pine needles and barren leaves, but who can tell? On the other hand, the daylilies started the year early, yey them!
All the herbs are thriving. Lesson learned, starting thyme from seed is not as easy as I thought. I’d like to thank the local nursery who bred the healthy plants.
All the baby hellebores made it through the winter. They are not going to bloom for a while yet, I guess I’ll have to wait for years to find out their flowers look nothing like the parents’.
I ran back inside, so I don’t have to look at the overdue pampas grasses. I have to clean, I have to clean…
One of the first lessons I learned about gardening is the importance of supportive plants. Usually the aspiring gardener clears the coveted patch in the sun and fills it to the brim with showy plants, all stately and spectacular, selecting only the ones with the largest blooms.
Then the gardener sits back and notices that he created a display stand, not a garden. The secret to those dreamy landscapes are the diminutive, the structural and the leafy, the kind of plants that don’t scream for attention from afar and unless you are looking for them specifically, tend to get lost in the large sea of bloom and fragrance at the plant nursery.
A garden can’t function without the low growing plants that embellish the front of the border and create backgrounds for specimen plants, weaving around their taller stalks like living water. Some, like alyssum, are delightfully fragrant. Some, likevinca, are evergreen.
Many of them are creepy-crawlies: creeping phlox, creeping veronicas, creeping myrtle, creeping thyme. Others are happy to cover the ground, mostly unnoticed, with healthy clumps of foliage: bugle, sweet woodruff, ivy, pachysandra.
The most delightful are the blooming carpets that show off their tiny blossoms at the end of spring and beginning of summer. The flowers are so small you have to get really close to appreciate them, but what a treat! Here is baby’s breath, which blooms at the end of May.
If you really want to treat yourself, plant flowering thyme around the stones of your garden path, where every step releases its fragrance.
If you plan to add woodland flowers to your garden, you have to offer them conditions similar to the ones they adapted to. The partial shade is quite easy, the more difficult part is recreating the rich, slightly acidic forest humus, with the correct level of moisture. I am still optimistic about the Jack in the pulpit, but I have a feeling it doesn’t like clay.
This one doesn’t mind, the wild bleeding heart. Unlike its noble sibling it blooms all summer and will do well anywhere.
When creating a fragrant garden, don’t forget about scented foliage. Some plants release their scent when baked in the sun, others when you brush against them.
The aromatic herbs - mint, basil,chamomile, thyme, rosemary, lavender - are the first choice, but if you want to get beyond them, here are a few other plants with fragrant foliage: scented geraniums, sweet woodruff, verbena, hyssop, and bee balm. Some rose varieties have scented foliage too.
The year of hyacinths
Every year the weather conditions seem to favor a specific flower, and this year it is the hyacinth. It feels strange to see them all by themselves, while the daffodils are still trying to catch up. I would blame myself for the December planting of the latter, but the established ones are not in bloom either.
I have way more hellebores than I was hoping for. In case anybody was wondering if they can be propagated from seed, I wanted to give you a heads-up.
It smells like spring, fresh grass and warm rain, and it is wonderful!
What a blessing it is to be able to spend time in the garden, it’s been so long I almost forgot how wholesome it felt, how exhilarating! Two weeks to planting time.
I keep visiting the plant nursery, and since every time I come back with potted plants, the living room started looking like a miniature greenhouse. The lemon verbena is already in bloom, show off, despite the rainy days’ low light.
I planted borage in a pot, it sprouted and grew a few inches, hey, I promised I’d try something new every year, and there it is. They say the flowers and young leaves taste like cucumbers.
Half of the seeds are still in the box, to be planted directly in the garden, it’s going to be a beautiful spring.
It doesn’t really look like spring in the garden until the spring cleaning is done. I rushed through it for a few hours between rains, so I didn’t have a chance to pay close attention to the perennials that were already out.
The sprucing up attracted a few visitors from the wilderness – a robin who kept me company for the duration of the cleaning and a couple of bunny rabbits who frolicked through the grass, encouraged by the warm temperatures.
The heavy rain chased me back indoors, with no time to spare, so the weeding will have to follow later. Between raindrops and thunderbolts I managed to snap a couple of pictures, of hyacinths, mostly. They seem to be the flower du jour.
The roses still need pruning, I didn’t even have a chance to see if there is any winter damage. The shrub varieties are fine, as always, but the rest…
All plants are charging back to life, even the hostas, who usually take their sweet time until late April. The daffodils are just now starting to bloom, I’m not used to seeing daffodils and tomatoes share a growing season. Daffodils, tomatoes and hellebores, what an odd combination!
After the second round of cleaning, when all the weeds are gone, the perennials could probably use some organic fertilizer, to kick start their bloom.
The seedlings are still indoors, still tiny. I started them so late this year that I might as well have waited and planted them directly outside.
This must be the strongest color in my garden, and it stands out even more because, for now, this lovely hyacinth has the flower border all to itself. I remember planting more than one, but apparently their bulbs are delicious.
Don’t let the woodland native description fool you, hyacinths love sunshine and will perform dramatically better in full sun. A good helping of bone meal won’t hurt, either. Don’t plant them in loose soils, they won’t like it.
Hyacinths are cautious plants, they don’t go all out during their first year, they like to test their conditions first, to figure out if they’re to their liking. This is somewhat counterintuitive, because people are used to the idea that hyacinth bulbs get depleted after a few short years.
This is not what happens at all. These lovely spring bulbs grow and bloom more with every passing year once they manage to develop strong, well-anchored roots.
I got out the door this morning and it smelled like summer. Most of the trees haven’t even started to bloom yet, but the perennials, faithful to internal calendars only they understand, decided to fill up at full speed.
In only a few days the garden sprouted flowers and foliage all at the same time, rushing to get to mature size as fast as it can. It rained a couple of times and the grass turned a deep emerald green, it came to life almost overnight. Between that and the trees leafing out, the sudden change of decor is almost surreal.
I took the seedlings outside to harden them, and the zinnias didn’t like it one bit, but all the other plants are enjoying the fresh air, the sunshine and the rain. Most of the seedlings are still small, because I started them so late, but they’ll figure things out, I’m sure.
Half of the seeds are still in the box and I’m counting the hours till Monday, when I get to plant them without having to worry about frost. I took a chance and started half of the cucumbers, the morning glory and the dahlia bulb before yesterday’s rain, to let the sky water them like the lazy gardener that I am.
I’m so happy the black cohosh came back!
There is a certain plant populating the shady flower beds. I hope it is not a weed, because I vaguely remember moving some enthusiastic seedlings there last summer, but for the life of me I can’t remember what they were. Every now and then, at the end of the season, I come upon an enticing perennial and sprinkle the seeds in a place with full sun exposure, for the following year. They always germinate, but for some reason I don’t notice them until a couple of months later, after I’ve forgotten what I planted.
Sure, some people put markers where they plant stuff, but I’m not one of them. So now I’ll have to wait until it blooms to figure out what plant it is. It looks very healthy.
I don’t understand what happens to the daffodils over the winter. Nothing eats them, because they are toxic, but they still manage to disappear from one year to the next. Every fall I plant more and in the spring, they are gone.
I’m glad this one made it, the last of the ruffled daffodils; there were some pink fragrant ones next to it, but sadly, no more.
I finally gave up on the fancy colors and fragrance for the benefit of resilience and I’ve been planting only the classic yellow jonquils lately. And still!
The sweet violets pushed ahead of all the other plants and are now covering every square inch of the back yard with cheerful white and blue blossoms.
Maybe mine is not a daffodil garden. The bleeding hearts are magnificent, the peonies are spectacular, and the coral bells and crane’s bills go above and beyond. The daffodils, not so much.
Pretty soon the coral bells are going to be in bloom, and stay that way for the whole summer, so I’m not going to pout. Judging by how soon the hostas decided to push out foliage, it seems like they are going to have a glorious year too.
Speaking of groundcovers, here is a great one for the shade. Vinca is an option for those dry shade spots where nothing seems to thrive. It will grow a lot better in part shade, where it blooms freely in spring.
I grew vinca around the base of a walnut tree, which is remarkable in itself. If you didn’t know, walnut trees release plant growth inhibitors into the soil to stifle the competition, their very own natural herbicide.
The sweet violets seem to be everywhere this year. I used to have two kinds, solid purple and white and blue. The latter variety must have won the gene pool fight, for there isn’t a purple violet in sight.
Maybe they’ll bloom later, who knows. One detail about sweet violets, they’re prolific self-seeders. Not from these flowers, though. The spring flowers are for show, the fall flowers are for seed. The good news is you can quickly create a very attractive ground cover. The bad news is that it won’t be your choice.
After oh so many cleaning days the garden is sparkling. The seedlings are planted, the roses are pruned, the weeding is done for now, the perennials are sprouting healthy growth, the herb garden is expanding. These are the moments that fill a gardener’s heart with joy, the moments when all the grueling work pays off.
Of course, because these things never fail, we were blessed with a frost advisory the week after the official safe planting day for our area, and I had to rush out and cover all the tiny plants so they don’t die overnight. The chill front is supposed to last for another three days, lovely!
They fared well over night, it even looks like their miniature greenhouses gave them an extra oomph, I could swear they weren’t this big yesterday. The good news is that temperatures are getting back into the seventies and eighties on Monday, which fares well for the perennials that have started showing buds. The creeping veronicas are already dotted with tiny blue flowers.
The grape hyacinths, sweet violets, bugle and navelwort are in bloom and this makes the flower borders look covered in Delft pottery.
I’m so excited that the garden finally came back to life that I make up gardening chores just to be outside. I divided and replanted some summer and fall perennials, combed the remaining leaves out of the ivy ground cover, bought and planted calendula, valerian and mint, sowed cosmos and cucumbers, the chore list only ends when you get tired of them.
I get out every morning to inspect how much the little seedlings have grown. They are, of course, still tiny, still trying to figure out that their new location is better than the sprouting pod. Despite the cold, the sun is shining brightly and it rained enough last week to give them a great start.
I am not done, by any stretch of the imagination, there are still a couple of areas I haven’t even started sprucing up.
So happy to be outside!
A trip to the plant nursery in spring is like a brief glimpse into paradise: overflowing baskets of pansies, fields of cheerful snapdragons, endless pots of marigolds, begonias and petunias. There was fragrance in the air, a heavenly scent I couldnâ€™t identify, but which I’m fairly sure was a combination of hyacinth, pansy and tree blossoms, with just a hint of mint and basil coming from the herb patch.
The weeping redbuds and cherry trees were in bloom, their gauzy curtains of pink flowers waving gently in the breeze. I can’t help bringing more plants home when I go to the nursery, no matter how hard I try. I exercised great restraint this time and only got a few medicinal plants for the herb garden. The season is just beginning and I’m waiting for the trays of annuals to show up.
The resident cats walked the grounds with territorial confidence, while customers came and went, loaded with flats of flowers and potted azaleas.
The sweet violets pushed ahead of all the other plants and are now covering every square inch of the back yard with cheerful white and blue blossoms.
I lingered around the kitchen herbs, marveling at row after row of basil, thyme and tarragon, as if I’d never seen cooking herbs before. Mine haven’t sprouted yet, a lucky break considering the late frost.
It was a lot warmer in the greenhouse, and the unexpected April chill made the temperature difference more obvious. Pampered in their sheltered haven, away from the cold, sharp winds and dry spells, the plants lived in summer already.
One of the fragrant daffodils I planted two years ago decided to bloom this spring. It is half daffodil, half Paperwhite, so it combines the resilience of the former with the fragrance and spotless petals of the latter.
It hovers over a field of lavender and indigo bugle, not entirely sure if it likes its location yet, shivering a little in the unexpected cold.
Contrary to popular belief, daffodils are not easy going plants. They will flourish beyond expectation if they encounter favorable conditions, but fail to thrive where there’s anything they don’t like, and those dislikes are many and varied: poor soil, too much shade, hard clay, not enough water, alkaline medium. I’m glad this one decided to give my back yard a chance.
Need a great ground cover for the shade? Look no further, navelwort has it all, lush evergreen foliage, gorgeous flowers that look like forget-me-not, low maintenance needs.
Nothing is ever perfect in life, though, so here come the drawbacks. Don’t plant it in full sun, it will look scorched and pitiful, but will insist on propagating and will grow a root system that holds on to hard clay better than a concrete footer.
It blooms freely in full shade but hates poor, hard soils, so you can’t use it to fix a dry shade corner. Unlike other ground covers it won’t manage its own weed control, so you’ll have to pluck nasties out if it constantly to keep it looking good.
After the annuals and veggies were moved to their permanent location, the flower beds cleaned and the perennials spruced up, the roses pruned, the fall blooming plants divided and moved and the summer bulbs planted, one would think that the gardener can sit back with a cup of coffee in some cozy verdant nook and relax.
Guess again! Here is the list of activities for this month.
I’m waiting for the flats of perennials to show up at the nursery. Half of the borders still need prettying up, and that requires ready made lush greenery in bloom. I would like to give thanks in advance to those who work so hard at the garden centers to make it available.
The weeds are a constant battle, I’m not even spacing weeding anymore, I just added it to my daily to do list.
I think this is the last week when the garden can do without watering. If it doesn’t rain, next week I have to put that on the schedule, too.
The daffodils are starting to fade and need cleaning up. This in fact applies to all the spring bulbs.
I have to treat the lawn to get rid of the tougher weeds that don’t respond to regular maintenance. It’s time to give the plants some food, preferably before the roses bloom.
I’m not going to be a grouch, though. The flower beds look marvelous, and they are even more gratifying because I filled many of them with cuttings and divisions from the rest of the garden.
Did I mention Jack in the pulpit came back? For real? Yes!
When you are a new gardener it is easy to make the mistake of ignoring the small plants. A beautiful garden relies on harmony and scale, layering textures, growth patterns and blooming times. Low growing perennials are essential to its success.
I was surprised to discover that the most charming dwellers of my flower beds are the little plants, the flowering thyme, thecreeping phlox draping over stone brims, the intense blueveronicas, that sparkle in the sunshine like tiny jewels.
Perennial ground covers are an easy solution for keeping weeds out of your flower beds. Most of them defend their turf fiercely and will do all the job for you, looking splendid in the process, I might add.
With this lesson in mind, I’m back to the plant nursery in search of close to the ground flowering plants.
The aromatic herbs will do in a pinch, but I like to keep the medicinals and the decorative separate, for safety. Besides, some of the aromatic lovelies have invasive tendencies.
A quick list to get started: creeping baby’s breath, candytuft, thyme, Sweet William, English daisies, stone crops, ice plant,dead nettles and creeping Jenny.
I don’t know much about sweet woodruff, so I was shocked to find out that it has medicinal properties, it is commonly used to flavor wine and other alcoholic beverages, and the tea made out of its leaves has a mild vanilla flavor and promotes restful sleep.
This piqued my curiosity, so I did a little more research and found out that it also has antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties. Every now and then, as I walk through the garden, I pick a woodruff leaf or flower and smell it, trying to figure out the reason behind this plant’s designation as an aromatic. Mine doesn’t have any fragrance.
Every season has its dominant color. Blue is the color of spring: navelwort, bugleweed, grape hyacinths, violets, creeping veronicas, forget-me-nots, every square inch is covered with a delicate lace of flowers in every shade of blue.
The sweet violets are everywhere this year, blooming with abandon. Just to keep me humble, the flower beds have also sprouted a fresh and vigorous crop of weeds. The weeds respect the blue color scheme too, ironically enough, except for the dandelions, which sport a clear safety yellow, so one can’t miss them from afar. Back to work.
What strange weather we’re having, with thirty degree temperature changes from one day to the next! Right now we’re in cold mode and the sixty degrees feel quite chilly after the tropical climate we experienced only a couple of days ago.
It rained a lot and the garden took on that fierce look it gets every time it is left to its own devices. More weeding, more weeding.
This is the time of the year when maples bless us with a glut of helicopter seeds that litter every flat surface, from the terrace to the garden chairs and the walkways. Usually I have to pick them out of the flower beds by hand, a task which requires the patience of Job, but not this year, this year the perennial foliage acted like a shield and didn’t allow any of them to reach the ground. I’m so grateful the plants are doing my work for me!
The roses and peonies started out on an enthusiastic bloom, only to be a little taken aback by the sudden change in temperature. The summer-like warmth spoiled me, so I’m waiting for it to come back before I get out there to restore order to the chaos.
The tomato plants are knee high and in need of staking and a mass of squash foliage already asserted its rights over the garden path. It is what it is.
You’d think the plants would slow down in this uncertain weather, but they grow aggressively, covering everything under and around them with a thick green blanket. God I love spring!
I brought some lilac flowers inside and their scent fills the room. It’s sunny. It’s cloudy. It’s sunny again. The foam flowers boast in the quick changing light. Morning, sunshine!
There are some annuals you only have to plant once. They will never leave your garden, whether you like it or not, so plan your plantings accordingly. One of them, and frankly, one too pretty to pull with the weeds, is Lunaria Annua, the honesty plant.
Some call it money plant, because it displays its seeds in translucent pods that look very much like coins strewn along tall and graceful stems.
The flowers are pretty too, as you can see, and quite reliable bloomers. They thrive in bright light but don’t require full sun exposure, which makes them a must have if yours is a shade garden. Blossoms usually come in purple, but there is also a white sport, the one I happened upon.
As I said, it is a relentless self-seeder, not fussy about soil types or water levels either, so it is perfect for those dry shade locations where nothing seems to prosper.
Honesty is a decorator’s favorite because its dried seed pods make sophisticated and long lasting flower arrangements. They are stunning in the landscape too, as long as you are aware of the fact that when their little cellophane wrappers finally snap open, every one of those seeds will sprout.
On a completely unrelated note, old time lore gave this plant power over metals, so much so that it could be used to pull the nails out of horseshoes and pick locks. Just saying.
Much as I love them, they completely took over the medicinal herb garden, and as soon as they’re done blooming I’m afraid they will have to go.
I vaguely remember sowing their seeds at the end of summer, in a corner that had remained bare for lack of a suitable medicinal plant candidate. Now they are growing out of the sage patch and advancing through the thyme towards the calendula. I grow tense just looking at them, they are an herbalist’s worst nightmare.
For a brief couple of weeks the garden was filled with white flowers: honesty, woodruff, foam flowers, lily of the valley, peonies.
It’s back to normal now, preparing for the magnificent June bloom. Speaking of flowers you only have to plant once, I think myNigella, aka Love-in-a-mist, is here to say. When in bloom, its delicate flowers look like tiny blue stars in a cloud of carrot-like foliage. Love it!
Stormy weather, sort of…
It’s summer, I think. Certainly feels like it most of the time, which is why the clematis didn’t stay in bloom as long as it usually does.
I spent the last two days waiting for rain, but despite stormy clouds the sky is reluctant to release the water it promised. I can only hope the high humidity in the air keeps the plants from wilting for now.
Everything is over-sized, due no doubt to the the rain from previous weeks and the diligence with which I apply organic fertilizer, but so far the result is mostly foliage.
The fickle weather makes me uneasy and restless, as if I forgot to do something important, so I go through the chore list again: weeding, check, planting, check, staking, check, pruning, check, feeding, too much already.
The sun hid behind the clouds, leaving me strangely relieved, and when it came out again I realized what made me anxious: this is the kind of weather my grandfather reviled, sunshine through the rain, because it creates the most favorable conditions for black spot. I wish those storm clouds reached dew point already.
On a happier note, everything is right on schedule, well developed and healthy; we’ll probably see flowers on the veggies in a week or so.
Judging by the good start the plants got, this year is going to yield a good harvest, but no matter how much you may want or need a plant to do something it will not oblige a second sooner than its internal schedule dictates. I reached the wisdom to appreciate what they do, not what I wish they did.
The makings of a vegetable garden
Even for those of us with a more relaxed attitude towards garden design, a vegetable garden demands discipline. For one, you don’t want to question whether the contents of your herb wheel are edible, and vegetable crops are energy intensive enough without unproductive demands on their resources.
The most important task in a kitchen garden is keeping it tidy: weed religiously and trim excessive foliage to encourage produce yield. Avoid diseases promoted by poor air circulation by respecting the plants’ spacing requirements.
The optimal width for a vegetable bed is three feet if it has access from one side and five feet if it has access from both sides, this way you can reach easily to clean and harvest and don’t have to step on it, which keeps the soil loose and gives the plants a better medium to grow in.
Starting a vegetable bed in any area that does not receive full sun for the entire day is hardly worth the trouble.
Companion planting improves both yield and flavor, so don’t miss out on the classic combinations: tomatoes and basil, pole beans and corn, green beans, eggplant and pepper, dill and cabbage and yes, peas and carrots. Lovage, tarragon and marjoram improve the taste of any neighboring vegetables.
Marigolds are a staple of the kitchen garden, because their pungent scent repels damaging insects. They fit in the color scheme beautifully, since most vegetable flowers tend to be white or yellow.
All trailing vegetables do better staked, trained and cleared of excessive foliage. Keep invasive herbs like mint and dill contained by planting them in a buried pot or chimney flue. Respect height hierarchy for visual appeal and easier maintenance.
Prepare the beds thoroughly at the beginning of the season by mixing in a good amount of compost or natural fertilizer, but don’t overfeed during the growing season. Let the dirt dry out between waterings to encourage the plants to develop a deep root system.
Be patient and allow the vegetables to reach their peak of ripeness before you pick them, getting that perfect flavor is one of the best things about growing your own garden.
Preparing for summer
I hope last year’s effort to redesign the sun garden yields results. I moved in a lot of reliable bloomers like daisies, garden phlox, irises and cone flowers and moved out the goldenrod godzillas and some over enthusiastic thickseed.
Between the former and the summer bulbs there should be enough bloom to go around over the next five months.
Alas, the French lilacs didn’t deign to produce any flowers this year. Miss Kim bloomed like a trooper for almost a month, but I miss the large double flowered variety. There is no sign that it will bloom later either, it looks completely barren.
Maybe the late frost disturbed its flower buds, some of the trees skipped blooming too. Until next year. Gardening demands the patience of Job.
I’m antsy in May. My impatience grows by the day with the expectation of long awaited yield. The flowers and vegetables grew fast this month, but so did the weeds, a gardener’s work is never finished.
I can hardly wait to start this year’s yield table, even though it will probably be another month before I have something to record in it.
If I knew how much I would enjoy having a perennial herb garden I wouldn’t have put off starting one for so long. I finally got the right Saint John’s Wort, (I checked the Latin name this time to be on the safe side).
The sage, chives and calendulas are in bloom and the lemon balm grew so big I will have to harvest a large portion of it just to keep it in check.
It’s too bad that most of the roses that made it through the winter are once blooming, so I try to enjoy them while I can. Even with the spectacular peonies and the very enthusiastic coral bells, it feels like something is missing. There should be a lot more flowers, I know I planted them, I can see them in the garden, hiding behind larger foliage, the cleomes and the cosmos and the zinnias and the tiny lupines. Even the petunias and the marigolds are bloomless for some odd reason. What does a green thumb need to do to see flowers? I thought those were the fail-proof last resort!
Meanwhile, love-in-a-mist volunteered from last year’s seeds and is now glowing bright blue in a cloud of green fuzz.
Sadly, none of the tea roses made it through the winter. The rest of them grew stronger and larger with each passing year.
When I started growing roses I made the decision not to get any that require winter protection. They all lived happy lives until a couple of years ago: the new normal, with five month winters and freezes till the beginning of May proved to be too much for them.
There is not a lot you can do to grow healthy roses, if they like their conditions they don’t need your input and if they don’t there is precious little you can do to change their fate.
Give them six to eight hours of sun exposure, good air movement around the canes and rich, slightly acidic soil and then leave them to their own devices. This year I will amend the soil around their roots to make it less limey, in the hope this it will make them bloom more.
I always like to give advice on growing roses and then point confidently at my rugosas, which make a great object lesson without any help from me. I challenge the reader to try and make one of these scrappy, greedy ramblers unhappy, nothing phases them.
Even they emerged from this winter with some cane damage, which really says something. They did, however, bloom first, like they always do.
The Gourmet Popcorn in the picture has apple scented foliage, a charming feature for the summer garden. The flowers are fragrant too, with a scent between citrus and spice.
It is a miniature China and it blooms all summer and well into the fall, braving the frost. I have pictures of their blossoms completely encased in ice.
A very popular hybrid musk, Ballerina is almost eighty years old. It blooms all summer, with a cloud of pink blossoms that look like sweet briar.
If kept pruned, the apple scented shrub is well behaved and not excessively thorny. When not pruned, its long canes can be trained on supports, if you want to grow it as a climber.
I worried when I added valerian to the herb wheel that it wasn’t going to last very long in my garden. Cats are supposed to be so attracted to this plant they can’t rest its scent and chew it into oblivion.
Either we don’t have enough free roaming cats in the neigborhood or its reputation of being irresistible is exaggerated: other than a slight wilt, due to the latest dry streak, it seems to be fine for now. It bloomed too, and its flower umbrellas are delightfully fragrant.
Valerian’s reputation as a medicinal herb is undisputed, it has been effectively used as a sedative and it is a relatively safe natural alternative for sleeping pills. The warning is due to the fact that on rare occasions it has the opposite effect, keeping people alert and irritable, and in large quantities it can generate gastrointestinal upset.
Some believe valerian was blessed with the gift of turning bad situations around and bringing advantage out of defeat.
Even though the root is the most commonly used, because it has the highest concentration of active compounds, all the parts of the plant share the medicinal qualities, which is a blessing considering the pungent smell makes valerian root quite unpalatable.
As with any herbal preparation, consult a physician before taking it and don’t use while pregnant, it has mutagenic properties.
Whether you grow lemon verbena as a medicinal or an aromatic plant, it gets plenty of uses, from flavoring fish and fruit salads, as a replacement or in addition to lemon zest, to pleasant calming brews.
For those who love to exercise, it is particularly effective in reducing muscle and joint damage after strenuous physical activity without undoing any of the benefits. Lemon verbena is a powerful antioxidant and an immunity booster, but be careful when you take it, because it may make you sleepy.
The plant itself is quite handsome, with long lance shaped leaves growing opposite on long slender stems. When bruised, the leaves release a strong citrus scent, one much appreciated by perfumers and which makes them an indulgent addition to therapeutic baths.
Though perennial, it is a tender one and will not survive outside in colder climates, but it will do fine in a pot if you want to bring it indoors for the winter. Like all sun lovers, it really doesn’t appreciate the meager light filtered through glass, but it will make do.
If you want it a thick, lush plant that doesn’t tend to get leggy you need to pinch the tops to encourage basal growth. The leaves can be harvested throughout the season, to be used fresh, dry or chopped and frozen.
The plant has long been used for skin and hair care because it tones, conditions and restores shine. Between that, the pleasant fragrance and the calming effect, it is definitely a must have for your natural beauty arsenal.
I finally cleaned up the herb patch to give this beautiful sage in bloom some room to shine.
I’m not sold on sage as an aromatic herb, I can’t say I find its scent in any way pleasant, but it is supposed to bring wisdom, prosperity and luck and who am I to object to that. Like everything that smells awful and tastes terrible, it is very good for you, it keeps the mind sharp, lowers cholesterol and blood sugar levels and in general, supports good health.
I just discovered this medicinal and aromatic plant, whose best attributes are its charming blue flowers that taste just like cucumbers.
Borage is a powerful anti-inflammatory, alleviating colds, congestion and arthritis, but the real surprise was how beneficial this plant is for people with heart problems. Borage tea facilitates oxygenation of the heart, tempers arrhythmias, lowers blood pressure and in general it is a heart tonic.
The rain brought with it an abundance of work to humble the gardener, the weeds are back, the debris is back, I must have dreamt just having finished my chores.
The most important characteristic of perennial flower beds is tough soil. Their residents, once established, don’t take kindly to being disturbed, and as much as you try to dig around their roots, the dirt tends to get much harder than it would in an annual border.
This is both a good thing, because many plants really thrive with more weight on their roots, and a bad thing, because heavy soil tends to drain poorly and make weeds harder to pull. If you are a plant propagation enthusiast, mulching is not an option because it can be very damaging to young seedlings.
For this reason the perennial garden requires almost round the clock weeding, pruning and deadheading to keep it looking neat, and still, after all the work, unless it was a complete full-grown plant installation, you shouldn’t expect the flawless look of annual borders.
This slight randomness is part of its charm, and its plants tend to fill up quickly, pushing against each other to cover the space until no square inch remains. I love my delphinium and rose border, despite the fact the delphiniums grew too close to the front, engulfing a soon to bloom lily, and the rambling roses are stretching their flexible canes everywhere but where they were supposed to, smothering everything underneath. A few smaller plants around their feet look mostly overwhelmed, but since they get enough rain and sunshine, they keep growing.
I had these cranesbills in a spot that didn’t seem to suit them very well. They languished for a couple of years until their roots stabilized the crumbly soil of the slope they grew on. After that they doubled in size and I divided them, to spread them in other areas of the garden.
Every one of the divisions blossomed, because they thrive in clay soil, which I have in abundance. How ironic that of all the locations where I could have first planted them, I picked the only place where their roots had to struggle to grab onto loose, crumbly soil.
If you want a perennial that blooms, they bloom. A lot. For months. Not too tall, they can be planted close to the front of the border where they show off a profusion of flowers, but if by any chance they happen to be planted in the midst of a sea of hostas they will fight fiercely for their right to sunlight, defending their territory with the toughness of champions.
Cranesbills like part-shade; they tolerate full sun exposure well, the only problem is that their flowers are not as long lasting. They are drought tolerant, but only to a point, a problem that’s not very noticeable because they are usually planted in the shade.
As a general observation, you can plant anything you want, but staying power is up to the plants themselves. They have to like your garden conditions, otherwise they refuse to thrive. Cranesbills really like mine, it seems like, and I’m very happy about that.
This year was a lot better for the once blooming roses than the one before, I guess normal weather patterns really do make a difference.
“Ballerina” only bloomed sporadically last year, when it had to fight a late freeze and black spot.
Despite their reputation for being difficult, established roses are quite reliable bloomers. Don’t forget that with very few exceptions the shrub varieties tend to bloom on old wood and hard pruning will remove all their flower buds. If unsure, you’re better off not pruning them at all.
There are some plants I always take for granted, and it doesn’t seem fair, so I’m taking a moment to appreciate this understated dead nettle, the plant that has everything. Almost. It blooms freely in the shade for a month at the beginning of summer and its variegated leaves are a feature in and of themselves.
It is a virtually care free perennial, although it tends to wilt during the summer if the soil gets too dry. Definitely worth a spot in your shady flower border, even if it’s not scented.
Shortly after I took this picture a powerful summer storm started, and not a moment too soon, I was a bit worried because the plants were drooping.
I take this opportunity to mention that rushing to water your plants at the first sign of wilt will keep them from developing a strong root system and will not work out well for either the plants or the gardener in the long run. When the dog days of summer finally arrive you won’t be able to drench their shallow rooted systems enough to keep them alive.
This warning about over-watering holds especially true if the amount of precipitation in your area has not been significantly lower than average for the time of year.
That being said, the peppers are in a pot, they grew really fast and as seen in the picture, they have a good start on fruit production, and for these reasons seeing their limp leaves droop pitifully tugged at the gardener’s heart strings.
It poured down for about fifteen minutes and stopped. I guess there is more rain to come later, but for now it quenched my guilt.
Unlike last year, when I grew a vegetable garden for the benefit of tomato foliage, this year’s crop started pushing out flowers and fruit early and assiduously.
The first batch of cayenne peppers got lost to a late April frost and the second round is trying to catch up in a pot engulfed by a sea of plumbago.
I don’t know what happened to the eggplants, but they are nowhere to be found. Oh, well…
Every year I make the mistake of not pruning the tomatoes, for worry that removing too much foliage will weaken them and make them vulnerable to pests and disease.
This is of course ridiculous, as every seasoned gardener will agree. Since I don’t want to grow lush tomato foliage for the benefit of mosquitoes and black spot again, I will abide by standard gardening practices this summer.
The good news is the plants are in bloom and little fruit has set already. The bad news is that if I leave them be, by the end of the summer they will outgrow their space and topple the supports. Even more of a reason to lighten up their frames now, while they are still manageable.
Tomato pruning is quite straightforward if you can find it in your heart to do it: the plants need pinching, lightening, cleaning, and topping.
Once the plant has grown four or five trusses, start pinching the suckers. Those are the smaller shoots that sprout at the joint between a large truss and the main stem.
Lighten up the plants by removing all but four or five large fruit bearing trusses from the plant, to concentrate all the plant’s energy into fruit production and maintain good air circulation.
Through the summer, remove all yellow or diseased leaves, so the plants look neat and healthy.
When the plant reaches the desired height, pinch the top growth from the main stem, to stop them from growing.
I promise I will do all of the above this summer, compare the yield with that of previous years and see if following tried and true gardening practices makes a noticeable difference.
Live and learn. The only thing I have to say for myself is that I’ve come a long way since my early gardening days. During the first year I let the plants sprawl on the ground. Never doing that again!
Did you know male squash flowers appear on the plants almost a month before the female ones? If you’re wondering why your verdant squash plants are blooming, but not fruitful, this is why.
Be patient and don’t worry, when the female flowers finally show up, a bounty of fruit will ensue. This year I planted the crook neck variety, they are pretty, plentiful and delicious.
I’m not particularly fond of green beans, but I like the fact that many of them have beautiful flowers, so last year I found the perfect compromise: I got a purple variety and a scarlet variety. Both flowers and fruit sport the aforementioned colors, making the humble climber as pretty as it is productive.
Hopefully it will be both in a few weeks, but for now I’m content to enjoy their beautiful blossoms. They look almost like sweet peas.
I sometimes forget how much I love summer rain, even the subdued kind, like the one right now, the kind that lasts for days. The light shifts to green from bouncing off lush wet foliage under a murky sky. There is harmony in the dance of raindrops tapping on the roof, life itself feels softer, more fluid, like its very essence dissolves in the rain.
I walked around the garden for a bit, just to watch it delight in the abundance of water pouring from the sky. If the plants were overgrown before, they sure doubled in size now. The squashes took over the walkway again.
A honeysuckle branch bends over the garden path, forming an archway at just the right point to delineate a loose boundary for the tiny vegetable garden. Behind it the tomatoes are looking trim and neat tied to their supports, pruned and much tamer than the year before.
The cucumber blossoms wink little yellow sparks from underneath broad wet leaves. Every now and then the rain stops and a few rays of sunshine pierce through the clouds, orange and softened by the humid air, to make the flowers’ cheery hues light up.
It rains, it rains. I am content to just sit in the doorway with my hands wrapped around a hot cup of lemon verbena tea and watch the garden be at peace too.
All the medicinal plants are in bloom, a rare sight for the herb patch, whose blossoms are usually scarce and short lived.
One might think the herb wheel is a happy go lucky mish-mash of perennials that take care of themselves and require minimal interaction, when in fact it is the exact opposite. You can’t grow an herb garden without giving it your whole heart and your full attention. It needs meticulous care, constant trimming and weeding, it needs to be pristine.
Due to the intent behind its design, which is to grow and harvest plants for home health remedies, nothing in it can be left to chance: the plants must be vigorous and unblemished to maintain their properties. The small hick-ups usually overlooked in a flower garden or even a vegetable one, like the occasional black spot, can not be tolerated here. The spacing and sun exposures have to be respected, the growth patterns carefully controlled, the plants kept in perfect health.
When the time for harvesting finally comes, only the deep green, healthy and flawless leaves make the grade. Perennial herbs need constant pruning to maintain good air flow between their stems and keep their leaves dry. Damaged foliage must be removed immediately.
I still hesitate to pick the calendula and lavender buds just as they open, like all herbalists recommend, because I’m still biased towards keeping flowers in the garden for as long as possible.
To keep the quality standards from slipping, since it is the source of ingredients for teas, salves and tinctures, I like to think of it as an outdoor lab.
The first hostas to bloom, to be followed by many more. The copious moisture agrees with these shade lovers, whose foliage is spectacular this summer.
Hostas are not very choosy about their site, as long as it gets some shade, but they need a little bit of luck. If they get planted during a hot and dry year they will drag for a few seasons before they really take off.
Looks like it’s going to be a great year for peppers again, even though I crowded them inexcusably. I have two varieties this year, bell and banana peppers, the latter seen in this picture.
The long range weather predictions call for an extended growing season, warm well into October.
An image for those dreary days in February or November when you can’t see the end of grueling chores, when your back hurts, your feet freeze and your hands bleed from all the raking and cleaning and when you have to fight your way out of a mound of yard debris. Today the garden turned on the love in drones.
This photo is probably going to find its way into winter articles again and again, it takes some ingenuity to come up with garden writing material when you don’t even want to get out of the house.
Cleomes definitely made the list of annuals to plant every year from now on, I only wish I started them indoors sooner, because they take their sweet time to mature. Their stately presence is perfect for this garden, where everything seems to grow over my head, cramping the style of well-behaved annuals like marigolds and begonias.
If you wonder why I didn’t choose more compact plants, allow me explain that the thyme is one foot tall and the catmints grew knee high. Even the tame plumbago, which is supposed to be a low growing ground cover, has developed into tallish clumps and now fights for territorial supremacy with some very resolute sweet violets, also extra tall.
At this point I just read the height chart on the plants’ package and multiply it by one and a half, in order to get a more accurate expectation of what they’re going to look like in the flower border. Two, if planted next to the cone flowers.
Speaking of mighty foliage, I should take an herb garden tour and harvest plants for drying, to keep them from growing out of control. It’s summer, people! Oh, blessed summer!
The middle of July brought its favorites – the lilies, the phlox, the daisies. I’m not sure whether cone flowers really are supposed to grow five foot tall.
There is fierce competition in the sunny border for the land and the light. I can barely make my way through the bee balms and the cosmos, not even the weeds manage to keep up with the perennials’ enthusiasm.
It rained a lot and the summer blooming plants delayed opening their buds, while their mighty foliage grew beyond reason. Among the flurry of leaves and stems, the lilies reign supreme, in an explosion of giant flowers whose fragrance reaches across the yard.
The garden is unruly again, but I finally achieved the wisdom of not fighting its prowess, I know that in this battle of wills the garden always wins. There is a clump of goldenrod asserting its rights over half of the front border and a good chunk of the lawn. It is already in bloom, so I can’t trim it, I’ll just admire the contrast it provides for the purple cleomes.
Sometime at the end of spring I planted petunias, but they got lost in the forest of tall stems that tower over them.
The daylilies are blessed with a glut of flowers, ready to bloom at any moment. Even the little two year old rose I thought dead sprung a flower.
During the sweltering evenings in August the heady perfume of garden phlox fills the air in a way that is almost palpable. Its blends with the fresh apple scent of the miniature roses and the clean smell of cut grass to create the recognizable fragrance of summer.
The plants have grown over a couple of decades and reach up to my chin, displaying heavy bunches of purple ‘ flowers at just the right height.
Along the garden path
The weather was especially good to the hostas this year, their broad leaves crave moisture and the consistently warm temperatures gave the plants extra oomph do supersize their foliage.
The next variety to bloom will be the lavender one that smells like lilies. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the current awsome blossoms, I’m just saying.
You almost have to stand by them with a camera, ready to take a picture the moment they open, because their spectacular blossoms don’t last very long.
What a treat, though, look at this picture! They are fragrant, but their scent is lighter, with notes of clove, lemon and jasmine and without the sultry intensity of white lilies.
They bloomed for about a week, right on time for the Fourth of July, and after that their blossoms faded they receded into the background, leaving room for the mid-summer flowers.
As happy as they make me, I’m sad that all of my Casablanca lilies have disappeared. Even the very tall one in the back yard that used to dangle over my head. Maybe they finally succumbed to the arctic winter weather, who knows. I can still see one or two, very late to the season and looking fragile, but they aren’t blooming.
The Triumphator is an oriental hybrid with strong stems that can hold eight or nine giant flowers at a time. It will not buckle under that weight and doesn’t need staking, nor does it have the sinuous, meandering growth habits of the classic garden lily.
It stands tall in the border, with deep green foliage that isn’t prone to disease, definitely a worthy addition to any sunny garden.
In the land of coneflowers
I find peace in my garden, among the tall cone flowers and daisies that reach up to my waist, resting my eyes on the pure purple of the wild bergamot. The bees love it, they love all the plants that bloom in bunches of tiny flowers, the catmints, the salvias, the stonecrops.
Towards the middle of the flower bed there is a tall, very imposing plant that I’ve been watching since spring began. For some reason I keep hoping it is one of those perennials I sowed in the fall and then forgot, despite the fact that it reached six feet and doesn’t seem to be in any hurry to produce anything resembling flowers. Even that plant breathes peace and contentment through every one of its abundant lance shaped leaves.
You can’t feel deprived in the land of cone flowers, they won’t have it! Worries and cares get trapped inside their pincushion centers that look a lot softer than they actually are. The cone flowers are excited to be in the sunshine, grateful for the plentiful rain, they don’t need anything right now and therefore are happy.
I wind myself down to get closer to their leisurely rhythm only to realize that during the last week they grew another foot. Who’s slow now?
They’ll be there next year, and the year after that, and the year after that. Whatever seeds the cardinals and finches spare over the winter are going to fall on the ground and sprout more cone flowers. During life’s tumultuous changes, or the ones so subtle and seamless we often fail to notice their magnitude, the cone flowers are as close as one can get to a sure thing. They’ll always be there.
For years these red daylilies didn’t have any flowers. I’m not sure what amended the impoverished clay they are growing in, but it turned into evidently superior soil. Maybe all those weeds I pulled and ditched behind the large perennial clumps really did turn into loam over time (which was the original intent).
The daylilies bloom well now, right next to the fragrant garden phlox and in competition with the bright red flowers of Maltese cross.
How to make honey
First, you have to be a bee. I was curious, so I looked up how bees make honey and wished I never found out. The process requires two bee stomachs, saliva and prolonged mastication of the nectar to make it gooey. We’re basically enjoying a twice regurgitated bee spit blend.
After I read the information I thought I’d never eat honey again, but I’m sure I’ll forget soon enough. You have to be in awe of a creature that chews up sweetened water into an earthly ambrosia that never spoils.