Garden with Grace

"I hope that while so many people are out smelling the flowers, someone is taking the time to plant some." ~H.Rappaport


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A Gardener’s Connection to the Art of Letter Writing

Lord Byron wrote, “Letter writing is the only device for combining solitude with good company.”

What’s happened to the art of letter writing to communicate with friends, family, and loved ones? In an era when texts outpace telephone calls for instant communication, I always welcome the wonderful surprise of a handwritten note or letter delivered to my mailbox. When that happens, it’s the first piece of mail I excitedly – but carefully open. Gone are the days when most of us keep beautiful stationery and embellished letter openers at our desks. In fact, thinking of letter openers makes me laugh because I’m reminded of the time my mother asked, “Is this to open your email?” as we found an elegant letter opener while shopping together at a local Nashua gift shop.

During the Christmas season, cards and letters still make their way to my home, but not nearly as many as in the past. Perhaps because it costs 50+ cents (I think!) for a stamp? Or maybe people have been too busy with every day life to send cards. Granted, most of the holiday correspondence these days consists of ‘form letters’ that recap the memories of friends who want to share the highlights of their past year. But even these ‘letters’, along with Christmas cards seldom find their way to the mailbox on my front porch these days. (Yes, we still have a mail carrier who walks door-to-door to deliver mail in my neighborhood.)

I admit, I’m guilty of sending very few cards at the holiday season over the past few years. And in 2019, sent less than five – or maybe three! It has nothing to do with how much I care about my friends, the price of postage, or my availability of time. I simply prefer to send my notes and cards at other times of the year like Valentine’s Day or even Halloween, but mostly Birthday cards and Thank You notes.

My thoughtful friends do notice this and often give me beautiful notecard and stationery gifts (there are still some of us out there who treasure such things – as well as the constantly changing selection of USPS postage stamps – I loved the frog stamps last year!) I also have a desk-drawer with notecards I create with the garden photography I post to Instagram. I wrote about these cards as part of a gifts from my garden story back in 2018. That one time project back in 2017, turned into an annual ritual (So, I guess now I have a series going! But I’ve also set a lot of expectations that I unfortunately didn’t fulfill this past year.)

I pulled out the most recent set of notecards today – this is actually my last full set from 2019. (I’m still determining if I’ll do another small print run.)

All of these cards are created with photos I take in my garden. Occasionally, I’ll get some requests to use a specific image from my Garden with Grace Instagram page for a future notecard. My favorite part of this annual project is aligning the images with appropriate quotes for the backs of the cards. This is actually the part of the project that takes all year. Sometimes I’ll come across a quote or one will be shared with me – that creates the challenge to capture an appropriate image. My mother has been a longtime collector of quotations – via books (Bartlett’s Book of Quotations was always on the family bookshelf while I was growing up – and still is today), and newspaper/magazine clippings.

With so many of my friends across the country – and around the world – practicing their social distancing right now due to the Covid-19 pandemic, I’m reminded that the simple practice of letter writing is an excellent way to ensure we maintain our connections and share our experiences with our friends and family. (Apparently, it’s still safe to send mail, but we should avoid licking envelopes – thankfully the USPS has self-sticking stamps – they prepared for this day!)

Right now, notes and letters can also be a nice option for work teams to stay connected in the coming weeks. While video- and teleconferencing is helpful each day, there’s something special about receiving a note from your boss or colleague recognizing your good work, attitude, a special contribution, or heck, even just to know you’re in someone’s thoughts.

So this is a great time for all of us to resurrect the art of letter writing. (I bet you have stationery or cards someplace in your desk or home office just waiting to be used – remember those cards you received from the nonprofit you’ve been generously supporting for years?! Some of my friends who are Garden with Grace readers may also have notecards I’ve shared in the past.)

Interestingly, as I was drafting this story, my friend Terri, unexpectedly dropped by to continue a ritual that she started over 10 years ago. For over a decade, maybe closer to two now, she has – without fail – given me an Amaryllis at Christmas. The nicest thing is that it always blooms in January, around the time of my Birthday – so it’s really two wonderful gifts in one. We haven’t seen each other in recent months – with the exception of a quick pass by while out at the grocery store – no real excuses other than life and work schedules not able to align. So here we are now – unable to connect in person even though we’re both in the same state at the same time for the first time in what feels like years.

Terri dropped off the annual amaryllis this past weekend – it’s called the Spring Amaryllis – at my back porch. It will bloom in a few weeks – maybe on or around Easter. Along with bulb (I’ll share a photo in an upcoming story when it blooms!), she added a notecard. Coincidently, it was one of the favorites in my Garden with Grace notecard series! In fact, it’s the very first card I made back in 2017 that started my annual project.

I’ve added this experience to my letter writing story because in a rather serendipitous way, Terri’s note and garden gift arrived at the same time I decided to pull up the draft of this story that’s been sitting idle for months. When I started it, I wasn’t expecting it would be during a time of pandemic and the need for more human-to-human connection. It’s interesting how our worlds and our lives intersect at just the right time. Those moments that are just ‘meant to be’. And often, those moments include a kind act or even a simple, handwritten note. That’s what I call grace.

Words can sometimes, in moments of grace, attain the quality of deeds.

~Elie Wiesel


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Good News! Spring is Not Cancelled

Like you, many things I’ve been looking forward to in the coming weeks have been cancelled or postponed. (September is starting to look quite full already with galas, concerts, and other rescheduled events.)

One thing that can’t be cancelled or postponed is the cycle of nature. Say it out loud, “Spring is not cancelled.”

Tulips, hyacinths, and daffodils are breaking through the soil. Trees and shrubs have a tinge of green. And, according to tracking websites, the ruby-throated hummingbirds are heading north.

My favorite summer garden visitor loves the Fuschia flowers growing in my garden.

More so than ever this year, I look forward to putting out my hummingbird feeders four weeks from today.  I can’t wait to welcome my hummingbird friends back to my garden in 2020.

What spring rituals are you anticipating more than ever right now?

No matter how long the winter, spring is sure to follow. ~Proverb


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How 10,000 Wine Corks Ended Up in My Garden

When the Beatles wrote ‘Get By with a Little Help from My Friends’ they never could have imagined those lyrics would be this writer’s ‘ear worm’ when she shared the decades long story of how thousands of wine corks ended up in her New Hampshire garden.

This story started back in the very early 1990s – during my first trip (of eventually many!) to the Napa Valley region of California. It was a much anticipated destination after working a long week at a technology trade show in San Francisco. Still early in my career, this was one of my first real business trips. My coworker and mentor, Claire, provided the best advice that I’ve now carried for nearly 30 years – always include some fun travel with your business travel.

Together, we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge and headed north to ‘Wine Country’. It was our reward after a grueling week of demos for an imaging and document management software startup – Keyfile Corporation. We had the coolest – and busiest – product demos because it was still a time when email was fairly new and most people had no idea about the possibilities of something called the “world wide web”.

The show was a big success for Keyfile and I was told to expect a nice bonus upon returning to NH. This information let me splurge on the weekend’s Napa/Sonoma adventure that included a lot of wine tasting/drinking and even a hot air balloon ride that landed in the Kendall Jackson Vineyard where brunch was waiting for us.

The first stop upon arriving in Napa was the V. Sattui Vineyard. This was where my wine cork collecting began – and never really ended. Corks were easy to carry and pack and provided great memories of the trip. Claire also collected some of the same corks and when we returned home, her husband hand-crafted a small trivet with the them as a souvenir gift that I still treasure today.

The corks in the trivet remind me of my first tasting at V. Sattui where I fell in love with their award winning Madeira (before I really even know what Madeira was!)

The Cuvaison winery was very small at the time of my early 90’s visit. I loved their stained glass logo – and their Chardonnay too! Cuvaison was the first wine club I joined when wineries could finally ship to the Granite State.

St. Clement remains in my mind for their beautiful front porch, overlooking vineyards for as far as the eyes could see. I learned to appreciate red wine there when I tasted their Cabernets. And, today, I frequently still purchase their wines from my local NH Liquor and Wine Outlet in Nashua.

And finally, Korbel (center cork). I learned the difference between champagne and sparkling wines while there when I was in my early 20s. (Korbel makes sparkling wines.) At the time, they also had a very comprehensive tour. (I don’t drink Korbel wines often now, but also don’t snub my nose at them, either.)

Momento created from my first trip to California Wine Country in the early 1990s.
The Center Cork is from the Korbel winery – it was a cork that hadn’t been used yet.

Flash forward over two decades later. During that quarter of a century, corks were saved from other trips to Napa, along with other fun events and travel where wine was enjoyed with friends and family, including DIY craft nights to make wedding centerpieces and wine cork wreaths.

They were also saved by other friends who had deep pride in their custom NH wine cellars (often closets, actually). John and Ginger were avid oenophiles…and were the first to hand over a trash bag filled with corks – it must have weighed 30 pounds. The corks sat for a few years in hopes of making more trivets. But, they eventually found their way into my garden with thousands of others saved during the same period of time.

Today, after collecting over 10,000 corks (Yes! That’s correct – 10K!), three landscaping projects have been completed across my garden. I shared information about the first one with my overview of various garden hacks a few years ago:

Project #1 – Mulch the Paper Bark Maple Tree

Twenty-five years of corks were tested as mulch, instead of using bark, around a newly planted paper bark maple in the center of the garden a few years ago. The results are both useful – the corks did hold back the weeds – and beautiful. That area of the garden sparks so many conversations now. It became – and still is – a central, fun focal point.

The first area of cork mulch – in the center
of the garden. Over time the corks have
faded to a silvery color, much like how the
color of teak changes over time.

Well, this ‘test’ sparked a question, “Should we continue to mulch different areas of the garden with wine corks?” The answer was a resounding, “Yes!” This is where my friends jumped in…whole-heartedly.

Project #2 Entrance to ‘My Secret Garden’

I continued to save corks over the next two years, but had barely enough to make a dent in mulching other beds. Then I attended an estate/yard sale down the street from my home. Sarah and David actually had a big box of corks for sale. I think it was under $5. So it went home with me! This was the next big push for mulching with corks. We prepped the back bed behind the garage – the one that leads to the zinnia garden.

Starting the next bed of cork mulch
behind the garage – project #2!

But, the corks didn’t go nearly as far as I’d expected or needed. So, I kept looking for more. I shared ‘my plight’ to my personal Facebook page and almost immediately learned that many of my friends also saved corks – but didn’t know what to do with them. My plea for additional corks made them realize they’d been saving the corks for me!

The summer of 2017 became the era where I finished two more cork mulch projects – thanks to the help of old and new friends. I don’t have photos of everyone, but have kept a list to give everyone credit in this story.

Additional donors to my ’cause’ included friends who just dropped by – from near and far (including a surprise visit Connecticut!) to deliver corks; friends who casually opened my purse at parties and threw in corks for me to take home; and friends who mailed corks to my home – including corks from North Carolina and California via trip to the Czech Republic (Yes! International corks, too.) Local bartenders also joined in the fun and saved corks for me.

Even with all these corks, by late summer of 2017, I still needed a few more handfuls to complete the section behind the garage in.

Then I received a text from a new friend – Cindy, whom I met through my friend Marie. Like so many other friends who find themselves downsizing and have no rationale to continue saving years of corks, Cindy was packing up her home to move and came across a huge stash – her husband saved wine corks going back to the 80s. So, they were hauled up to NH from MA on a late summer afternoon for a first time get together. I finally had an over abundance of corks.

BONUS! Project #3 – Freshen Up the ‘Thinking Garden’

With many corks still unused after project #2, it was time to scour the garden for a home for the rest of them. This was a bit of a challenge due to the slope of the overall landscape. We needed a level area and the beds around the ‘Thinking Garden’ were perfect. With the removal of old bark mulch, and a little raking, the rest of the corks settled nicely into their new home.

Prepping the Bonus Cork Bed – Thanks to nearly 40 years of corks from friends
The Grand Finale! ‘Bonus’ corks completed the ‘Thinking Garden‘.
It’s didn’t take long for the corks to just become a normal part of the garden.
Even the local Garden Cat (Whiskey) approves!

So, that is how – over a few decades – or nearly half of my life – I’ve been able to amass enough corks, over 10,000 by some estimates, to mulch three large beds across my garden. It’s created quite the conversation piece when people visit or when they run into me while out in the Nashua community. I’m often introduced as ‘that friend who puts corks in her garden’.

While some of my friends – many of them donors to my own project – have started their own collections for their backyard or lakeside gardens, for some reason, the corks continue to migrate to my home. I never complain!

An anonymous cork dropoff in November 2019.

If you like this idea and don’t want to wait to have enough corks for your own landscaping projects, you can put them in potted plants. They add a nice finishing touch, and unlike other ‘mulches’ are free of insects and dirt.

It’s a clean way to add interest to your potted house and patio plants. As of now, none of the corks across my garden beds over the past few years have rotted or disintegrated. However, sometimes the birds and squirrels like to occasionally do a little rearranging of the landscaped areas.

So drink up – before all the wineries replace corks with screw tops. The wine industry will thank you and your garden will be become a fun local topic of conversation – among both oenophiles AND gardeners alike. Best of all, like wine always does, the corks, too, add so much to your friendships, both far and near.

Cheers! Salud! Prost! Nostrovia! Thank you to all of my CORK CONTRIBUTING FRIENDS, including, but not limited to: Ginger & John, Sarah & David, Cynthia & Chip, Terri & Steve, Sarah and Jeff, Lindsay & Megan, Karen G & Karen W, Kathy & Larry, Liz & Paul, Cathy & Tom, Cheryl & Bruce, Michael Timothy’s Wine Bar, Rosemarie & John, Cindy, Karen, Marie, Bobbi & Steve, Bobbi’s sister Diane, Colleen B, Diane S, Steve & Jane, and the mystery donors who occasionally leave corks on one of my porches for back steps!

“Out of gardens grow fleeting flowers but lasting friendships.”
–  Beverly Rose Hopper  


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Still Picking Weeds? Try ‘Pickling’ Them Instead

It’s been a cool, rainy spring in southern New Hampshire. The perennial garden is lush and green. The annuals, including the tomatoes and zinnias are are showing quick signs of life and the weeds…..well….they are EVERYWHERE!

A few years ago, the mulched paths throughout our gardens were replaced with stone – a combination of pea stone, blue stone, and crushed rock. The goal at the time was to reduce the overall costs and time associated with mulching and weeding. Replacing mulch made from organic matter that breaks down – with various types of stone that lasts forever – added new interest to the landscape and made weed control (a little) easier.

Rock and Stone throughout the garden.
The winding rock and stone paths across the garden.

One of the biggest challenges with these paths is weed prevention. And when that’s neglected, actual weed removal is an even bigger headache. The wet spring resulted in fewer days working in the garden during May and early June, resulting in a sudden explosion of weed seedlings throughout the stone paths. (You can see the growth in the pea stone path between the two garden areas below.)

The beginning of a weed nightmare in the garden path!

Rather than spend hours picking through the stone to remove each tiny weed at the root, only to see them return in a few weeks, I researched some easier options or what I call ‘garden hacks’. In the past, Round-Up was used sparingly – before we knew how bad it is. We’ve also used vinegar, both straight and diluted, as well as boiling water. Truth be told, the vinegar option in the past worked, but weeds always returned.

After a little online research – as well as anecdotal conversations with friends who have tried various techniques to kill weeds, I found a vinegar-based recipe to spray on the weeds that expanded on the previous somewhat success of using vinegar. This recipe includes the use of table salt (1c) and Dawn dish detergent (1tbs) with household vinegar (1gal). The vinegar and sodium kill the weeds by dehydrating the weed, interrupting its internal cell structure. The detergent acts as a surfactant to ensure the vinegar and salt stick to the weeds. An important note here is that this mixture should only be used where you don’t want ANYTHING to grow. The salt, specifically, can wreak havoc with the structure of your soil. This is why I tried this solution to only on the rock pathways.

It WORKS….FAST! I used a watering can (special one set aside for projects like this so I it’s not mistakenly used for other purposes in the garden) and after a few days, went through over 25 gallons of vinegar and 25 cups of salt! The photo here was the first 17 gallons – the Nashua city workers who do our recycle pickup must be wondering what’s going on at my house! I’ve now found generic household vinegar and salt to use to save a little money – but continue to use Dawn.

Within an hour, the weeds – big and small started to disintegrate. Within a day, they were pretty much all together gone. They shriveling up to almost nothing and apparently blew away.

Dandelion – 1 hour after treatment with vinegar, salt, and Dawn.

The majority of the time to complete this weeding project was spent stirring the salt to make sure it dissolved in the vinegar. It’s also important to gently stir in the Dawn at the end to avoid creating suds.

It’s been almost three weeks since I’ve ‘pickled’ the weeds in my garden paths. And so far, none have returned. I believe this is a simple, safe, inexpensive, and fast solution when used in the proper areas of your garden. The only drawback is the entire garden reeks of vinegar and salt for a day or two. (Be forwarded – you may start to crave pickles or salt & vinegar potato chips when you pickle your weeds.)

IMPORTANT NOTE: Of course, nothing is fool-proof. Two years ago, I shared thoughts about weeding the thyme that grows in the blue stone paths in my garden. Since I do want the thyme to grow in this area, the ‘pickling’ solution is not appropriate for this part of the garden. The only way to ensure I don’t have a followup to that earlier weeding sob story is a commitment to due-diligence now to pull the weeds in the thyme path as they pop up. Since I take a daily walk thru the garden, this is simple and effective, especially when I use my handy-dandy CobraHead mini weeder.

“I always think of my sins when I weed.  They grow apace in the same way and are harder still to get rid of.”

~Helena Rutherfurd Ely, A Woman’s Hardy Garden, 1903


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The Science Behind a Productive Garden

Last July, I shared an overview of a program I created for the Science Cafe Nashua. It’s was on the Science of Gardening. Typically, the group skips its discussion in July and August, but we thought we’d try to attract an audience with a unique topic. We were shocked when the event ‘sold out’ during a hot July holiday week. And everyone enjoyed a two hour Q&A with experts who talked about things ranging from soil health, to how bad habits like smoking can attract blight, as well as how to handle various garden pests – even the cute, fuzzy ones. (Honestly, I think he special cocktail for the evening was also a draw – the Garden Gimlet made with fresh lavender from local gardens.)

As a result of the success of last year’s gardening topic, we hosted an additional gardening discussion this spring to get local gardeners – of all levels – excited for the 2019 planting season. We brought back two of our speakers from last year – Gene Harrington from the Nashua Farmer’s Exchange and Cameron Bonsey from Coast of Maine Organics. And were delighted to have Jonathan Ebba with the University of NH Cooperative Extension-Hillsborough County join us, too.

We discussed the value of understanding that many gardeners in New England start their plants too late. One of the big things I learned while preparing for the session is that there are some crops that need to be planted as early as March in NH to ensure a successful harvest — this is all based on the extended amount of daylight as we move from spring to the summer solstice in June. I wrote about this in an introductory gardening article in the local paper if you want to learn more.

Thanks to the generous donors at our April event, the Science Cafe Nashua produced a video of this gardening session that I’m pleased to share with you. Feel free to skip to the sections you want to hear via the index. You’ll find topics that include information for all types of gardeners from beginner to master levels. Let us know how you like the video and feel free to share it – or this blog post – with your gardening family and friends.


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Hearts and Flowers from the Garden

The week of Valentine’s Day makes me think of my garden and springtime.

While not traditional Valentines Day flowers – like Red Roses, I always think of Bleeding Hearts in mid February. They look like what might happen after Cupid shoots its arrow.

This image is from my garden in May 2018. I’m always on a quest to find quotes to match my garden photography – this one seems right. If you have another hearts and flowers quote that you love, please share it via a comment.

Happy Valentines Day!

Bleeding Heart plant with quote by John Lennon - Love is the Flower You've  got to Let Grow. ©SandyBelknap2019


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Today’s Seeds are Tomorrow’s Garden Harvest

Gardeners can relate to the euphoria felt when finding seed and gardening catalogs while sifting through a pile of mail – usually holiday bills – as the darkness of winter sets in. The delivery of these catalogs in late December and early January bring excitement akin to the of the arrival of the old-time Sears Wish Book when we were children.

I have several gardening and seed catalogs in the rooms across my house right now, but there are three I keep returning to as I dream about my 2019 garden. In fact, I’ve just set a date to go through these catalogs with my friend Jane later this week. Together, we will make final decisions on what to order and then share the costs and, of course, the work as we look toward spring.

Jane is one of my BFF’s when it comes to gardening (and in everyday life in general, too!) I love it that she is very methodical when it comes to starting her plants from seed. She did this for the first time last year and her results were fantastic, with a variety of eggplant, tomatoes, peppers, and herbs – that she generously shared with me. Jane in the only person I know who has even successfully started rosemary and parsley from seed.

I used to be obsessed with starting my seeds in late winter/early spring. I had all of the shelving and other supplies like grow lights and warming mats. For a gardener, there’s nothing more motivating than the fragrance of soil wafting through the air while starting seeds when there’s still snow on the ground. Our effort of starting seeds indoors was quite successful and we’d end up with hundreds of seedlings – way too many for our small garden, so there were always plenty of unique plants to share with friends across the region.

Over time, the cost and commitment for the small amount of plants I could actually plant in our garden forced the decision to stop this late winter ritual. Now that I have a friend who is eager to start her seeds (she has much more space for a vegetable garden than I do), I’m looking forward to again, digging in to this favorite activity in 2019. I’ll share our progress as we move toward spring.

Meanwhile, an unexpected gift arrived at my doorstep last week – and it ended up being my first batch of seeds for 2019. My friend Maria and her daughter Sophia send me “Garden BonBons”.

I wish I had known about these ‘seed bombs’ when I wrote about great garden gifts for the holidays in late 2018.

Well, with Valentine’s Day right around the corner, these ‘Garden BonBons’ created by Moultonology are beautifully packaged just like fancy, high-end chocolates. But, they are not candy to eat, they are candy (seed bombs) to plant in the garden.

While I haven’t planted these yet (the ground is frozen in New Hampshire until May), I still love the idea and creativity they represent. One box is a mix of seeds for garnishing cocktails. The other is to attract bees and butterflies. I’m already planning document how they grow in a story later in 2019 – so keep an eye out for that update this summer.

As you may have been noticing, the days are getting a little longer now. (In New Hampshire, we can see a little daylight at 5pm!) Are you now inspired to take the step to turn the dreams of your 2019 garden into reality? What are some of your favorite seed and plant sources? And what seeds will you be starting this year? Do you go with the tried and true, or are you an experimenter? I’d love for you to share your thoughts with a comment.

“All the flowers of all the tomorrows are in the seeds of today.”

Proverb