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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Good Gardeners Know the Best Dirt

One of the first signs of spring in my world is always the fragrance of  newly opened bags of potting soil for seed starting and transplanting. Fellow gardeners know — fresh dirt just smells incredible! It’s a heavenly spring fragrance, especially after a long New England winter.

I have about a dozen large pots for annuals, including flowers, herbs, and vegetables around my garden that I fill with fresh potting soil late each spring – it’s about a $100 investment………….for dirt!

This year, I used different soil mixes in different pots for different plantings. I didn’t intend to conduct an experiment. There was some left over Doctor Earth soil in my potting shed that I used in some of my tomato planters. Then I found some Organic Miracle Grow Moisture Control with coir potting soil at Costco (huge bags – I think 15 qts for $9.99 each.) I used this in my five coleus planters and one of my herb planters. And finally, I got some Coast of Maine potting soil from the Nashua Farmer’s Exchange for my other large herb planter. Coast of Maine products have long been a favorite product in my garden – especially their awesome Lobster Compost.

It’s important that no matter how experienced we are, good gardeners always seek experts to help us to grow our skills and knowledge. Gene and Judy, the owners of the Nashua Farmer’s Exchange, are the experts I count on for good advice.  They have been ‘trusted advisors’ to both my mom and me for many years when it comes to trying new things and finding solutions to garden challenges.

This year, Judy recommended the Stonington Blend  potting soil from Coast of Maine when I stopped in to get the dirt on the best dirt for my large herb containers. Knowing the great quality of the Coast of Maine products, I took Judy’s advice. While the product is a little more expensive than I typically purchase, it was on sale and worth a try.  As I paid for my purchase, Judy whispered to me that the Stonington Blend has a great reputation among medicinal marijuana growers. I found that interesting and kind of funny since I was purchasing POTting soil.

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Stonington Blend by Coast of Maine – A New Garden Favorite!

Not realizing that I’d need A LOT of soil for my herb planters, I bought only enough Stonington Blend for one container (which wasn’t an issue – or so I thought! – since I bought those huge bags of the organic Miracle Grow mix from Costco). So, each herb planter used different soil – which set up my unintended gardening experiment this summer.

Seeing is believing!

First, I will share that both planters had the exact same conditions and were set about 10 feet away from each other, with the same amount of sun. The only difference is that one had the Miracle Grow Soil and the other had the Stonington Blend.  The Sweet Basil in both containers is the true testament to the difference – both came from the same batch of seedlings, started at the same time.

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September 2, 2017 – Miracle Grow – Organic with Coir Moisture Control (#1)

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September 2, 2017 – Stonington Potting Mix – Coast of Maine (#2)

Both of these containers were planted during Memorial Day Weekend of 2017.  And clippings from both containers were taken all summer – however, the quality of the herbs in the Miracle Grow was just terrible this year. I actually took more cuttings from the Stonington Blend container (#2) because it was so much further ahead all summer. Initially, I started the Thai Basil – on the far left of container #2 – in the Miracle Grow container. It didn’t do well, so, I transplanted it to the Stonington Blend container in early August – within three weeks, it quadrupled in size – that was my confirmation that the soil was the big difference between the two containers. (I harvested the Thai Basil last week to make Spicy Tofu Basil for dinner last week. It was so good, I ended up making it twice! That herb is now top of the list to plant again in 2018!)

Here’s the comparison on the day that I harvested Sweet Basil on September 9, 2017.

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Both bunches of basil were started together and harvested at the same time. The big, bright bunch on the left was grown in the Stonington Blend. The lighter, smaller leaves were grown in Miracle Grow Organic Moisture Control Mix. Same number of plants in each container.

I visited the Nashua Farmer’s Exchange in mid September to share the results of my unintended experiment with Gene. He gave me a lot of background on the movement of soil producers around the country to create top quality potting mixes for the medicinal marijuana market. From what I gather, the product I used from Coast of Maine is one of, if not the top, potting soil available for this purpose today. For my own use, I’m just awestruck with the results we saw for my herb containers.

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My Garden Advisor, Gene, owner of the Nashua Farmer’s Exchange.

Container #2 with the Stonington Blend is still on my back patio – and is absolutely flourishing! The flat-leaf parsley and mints that looked terrible just one month ago in the Miracle Grow container were transplanted to the Stonington Blend – that I mixed up well – on September 2.  Here’s how that planter looked one month later on October 1, 2017 (Before I harvested the Thai Basil):20171001_135813In the past, this was a week when remaining herbs would be removed and containers cleaned and put away until spring. However, with absolutely no frost or freezes expected in southern New Hampshire for at least two more weeks, these are staying put so I can enjoy the parsley and mint through October.  Halloween Mojitos, anyone?

“There are no gardening mistakes, only experiments.” ~Janet Kilburn Phillips

 


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Garden Hack #3: Hosta Hides Fading Daffodils

The Garden Hack Series continues!

The first two Hack’s led to so many wonderful conversations among friends. Especially popular is the Wine Cork Mulch hack! Now, whenever friends open a bottle of wine, they tell me they are ‘making mulch’ for my garden! I still need a few more corks for one project, but with the help of so many ‘mulch makers’ in my life, it should be finished soon!

With summer on our doorstep (we’re actually on day 2 of a 3-day heatwave in New England right now), I look around the garden and still see some fading foliage of the daffodils from early spring. In order to ‘charge’ the bulb for next year’s blooms, it’s necessary to keep the daffodil foliage after cutting the spent flowers. As the foliage starts to brown and wither away, it’s not the most attractive sight — but I’ve been using a solution that I read about a few years ago, and it works quite well!

Garden Hack #3: Hosta Hides Fading Daffodil Foliage

In the fall, as the hosta falls apart after the first heavy freeze in New Hampshire, I’m usually preparing all the garden beds for their winter rest. By this time, gardening feels tiring – almost exhausting. But there’s always the final big push to plant spring bulbs. I just keep reminding myself that the extra effort to plant some tulips and daffodils will be rewarding come spring.

I can’t remember where I first read about this idea, but it’s one of my favorite Garden Hacks (after the Wine Cork Mulch!) When daffodils are planted among the hosta in late fall, you’ll save some time cutting back the withering foliage come June. The newly emerged hosta grows at a rate to completely camouflage the brown daffodil foliage, but doesn’t detract from the spring blooms. If anything, it enhances them, but bringing more color and depth to the the bare ground. I liken this to the work that florists do when they ‘green the vase’ before creating a flower arrangement.

This photo is from mid April of this year, just as the daffodils started to bloom. I love how the newly emerged hosta gives a bright green look of life to that entire garden bed.DSC_1053

The wonderful thing about this hack is the daffodils bloom for several weeks and just as they start to fade, the hosta really takes off to hide the fading flowers.Daffodils-Hosta

By early June, the hosta reaches it’s full size for the season, completely covering the daffodil foliage that is working hard to charge the bulbs for next year’s flowers.Hosta-Daffs

Here’s a broader view of the garden from last week. You can see on the right, the arrows point to the section of the garden where the hosta is doing its magic trick of making the daffodils disappear!Garden Aerial_LI

“Gardening is learning, learning, learning.

 That’s the fun … You’re always learning.”

~Helen Mirren

 

 


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The Power of Patchouli

Patchouli reminds me of Brussels Sprouts or Cilantro. You either love it – or hate it. There’s really no in-between.

Personally, I’ve always been fond of Patchouli, enjoying its fragrance in candles and essential oils. I knew Patchouli came from some exotic plant, but never in my wildest dreams thought about growing it in New Hampshire – until early spring of 2015.

While shopping for container annuals and herbs at Salem’s Lake Street Nursery during the early days of spring, there it was….a tiny 4 inch pot of Patchouli for under $5!

This trip to the nursery was after the record breaking winter of 2015, so there was so much hope for the months ahead – coming across the small Patchouli plant was an unplanned bonus. I had no idea what to do with it – nevertheless, it made its way back to Nashua  to be added as a whimsical item for the 2015 garden.

The young leaves had the fragrance of….well…Patchouli!

It was amazing to touch the leaves, releasing their oils to scent my hands and the air nearby.  It was also fun to show it to garden visitors, by breaking off a piece and asking them to guess what it is. Most people remarked it smelled familiar, but they can’t come up with the plant. Once I tell them, there’s always great discussion on the memories that the Patchouli fragrance evokes. One garden guest immediately shared that it smelled just like our friend, Karen. (She was absolutely right – I never think of Karen without thinking of her signature fragrance!)

By the end of the 2015 growing season, the Patchouli plant was about a foot and a half tall and wide and it seemed a shame to let the October frost claim it. So, an experiment ensued.

I cut the stems off and dried the leaves to create a small dish of Patchouli Potpourri. Within a few weeks, the fragrance from the dried leaves disappeared. After cutting back the plant to the soil level, it was watered well and over-wintered in the basement.  By spring of 2016, the Patchouli plant came back to life and was ready for another growing season in our New Hampshire garden.

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The perfect place in the 2016 garden was under a 30 year old Weeping Cherry tree in the backyard.  By the end of the summer, it turned into a huge shrub – reaching its maximum size of 3′ x 3′. Unfortunately, the growing season was not long enough to allow it to reveal the white flowers I’ve read about when researching Patchouli.

By late September, as the cooler nights started to set in, it was time to do something with the Patchouli. I really wanted to create some essential oil…..so I did.

It was a several week process — I used instructions found online. Since I don’t have the equipment to steam distill the oil, I used the method of infusing the dried leaves in the oil. Basically, you dry the leaves and infused them in a carrier oil. I used organic Sweet Almond Oil.

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Time to cut back the Patchouli

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The neighborhood Garden Cat supervised the Patchouli Harvest

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Patchouli after being infused in oil for 2 months. The entire plant fit in one hand.

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Production line – 12 one ounce bottles!

The jury is still out on the final result.  Personally, the fragrance is light and smells fresh or green – not deep and musky as I expected. Apparently Patchouli Oil improves with time. As it ages, it turns darker and the fragrance grows more potent.

Interestingly, many people are anxious to receive gifts made with plants from my garden. Not true with the Patchouli Oil.  More people than not have kindly said, “Thanks but no thanks.” So my few Patchouli loving friends are part of a longer term experiment to determine if the end product actually improves as it ages – like a fine wine!

In the meantime, I’ve been researching the various uses for the oil beyond it’s powerful fragrance. Among other things, I learned Patchouli Oil has been used for thousands of years and was once considered very valuable, being used as an exchange for gold by early European traders.  One pound of Patchouli for one pound of gold. King Tut even arranged to have 10 gallons of it buried in his tomb!

The history also includes use to scent fabric in the 19th century, to keep moths away, as well as to treat skin maladies and sexual dysfunction.  Today, it’s being used primarily as I expected, as a fragrance. The aromatherapy benefits of Patchouli Oil include anxiety, stress, and depression relief. You can learn more about the history and uses of Patchouli Oil at Mercola’s website.

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In the end, my production of Patchouli Oil resulted in 12 ounces of medium-yellow colored oil – to perfectly fill the 12 bottles I ordered for the project.  The label designed for the bottles includes one of the sunflowers from my garden grown during the 2016 season.  It will be interesting to save a bottle or two for a few years to see if the fragrance and color deepen to what I was initially expecting.  Only time will tell.

“Suddenly, I felt like I was wearing Patchouli Oil in a room full of Chanel.”

~ Carrie Bradshaw, Sex and the City


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Keep Your Face to the Sunshine…

There is always so much hope when seeds are planted  in late spring.

Especially sunflower seeds.

We look forward to their golden petals all summer, while at the same time, know that their arrival signals the transition to shorter days and the autumn season.

The New England weather challenged backyard gardeners all summer long as severe to extreme drought conditions gripped the region. (We lost our little bit of lawn — again — yes, that ‘Sad Sod Situation’ continues to be a challenge – but we’ll discuss that in another post someday.)

Beginning in  June, we watched the sunflowers struggle.  The dozen or so inch-high seedlings were a much sought after ‘garden buffet’ delicacy for this year’s over abundance of chipmunks and squirrels. In the end, we were able to grow a TWO eight foot tall sunflowers that became a stunning, late early autumn focal point, adding much-needed color to the garden. (Even the hydrangea failed to bloom due to the challenge of changing climate conditions.)

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It was amazing to watch the single large flower on each stem slowly open and come to life over the course of four days.

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Day 1 – Ready to Burst

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Day 3 – Almost There

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Day 2 – Time to Wake Up

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Day 4 – Hello Sunshine!

HELLO SUNSHINE!

Once each flower opened, the bees quickly began their pollination process.  It was amazing to watch the bumble bees AND honey bees over the course of about 10 days navigate around and around the flowers’ centers to pollinate and bring the sunflower seeds to life.

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As the seed head grew bigger and heavier each day, I was looking forward to harvesting some of the seeds to save for the 2017 garden. The plan was to leave the majority of the seeds for the songbirds to enjoy.

THEN THIS HAPPENED!

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A squirrel used a nearby trellis as a ladder to reach the seeds.  Fresh sunflower seeds became another menu item in the backyard garden buffet. Delicious!

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The seed head continued to swell for a few more days and approximately three weeks after the flower first began to show its sunny face, its head bowed deeply toward the earth as autumn set in.  By day 30, the squirrel came back, hungry and in full force, to strip the seeds row by row – creating an interesting pattern.

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Second to peonies, sunflowers have always been one of my favorite flowers (lavender would round out the top three.)  After enjoying hundreds of sunflowers from self-sown seeds in the Greeley Park Community Gardens a few years ago, it was gratifying to grow sunflowers in our own backyard garden this summer. Perhaps in 2017, we’ll double our crop …. and raise four of them!

This feeling of optimism that sunflowers bring must be part of the story behind the Helen Keller quote that inspired me to share the story of our 2016 sunflower success:

“Keep your face to the sunshine and you cannot see the shadows. 

 It’s what the sunflowers do.” ~Helen Keller


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Autumn Surprise

While I dread the end of the summer, there’s always a surprise in the garden in autumn.

This year, the surprise was late – the Maximillian (or New Mexican) Sunflowers.  These have been in the garden for over a decade, started from seed and over the years have been shared with friends across New England. As I write this, I’m reminded that a clump of them will be travelling this weekend to a special garden of an artist friend in Weare, NH.

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Not your typical sunflowers, these look ‘weedy’ all summer, until they start to bloom in late September.  This year, the bloom didn’t start until mid October – just in time for the frost that is expected this weekend.  There’s nothing more refreshing than a bright burst of yellow in the garden as everything else is ready to come to an end.

Mother Nature is magical!


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Beauty – Always in the Eye of the Beholder

At the end of a very rainy day, I felt the need to stroll through my now fading garden. After a few minutes, I was feeling a little down that the flowers, especially the mandevilla, are starting to shrivel and drop after a very dry summer season.

I heard a car pull up and stop on the other side of the hedge and could see a woman in the driver’s seat waving to me.

She rolled down the window and asked about the “beautiful red flowers” on the trellis. (The mandevilla that I was looking at as she pulled up.)

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The woman got out of her car and told me how she enjoys looking over the hedge and into my garden while she waits to pick up her daughter who visits nearby. (She enjoys listening to the wind chimes and watching the birds, too!)

We chatted for a few minutes about gardening and nature and peacefulness. It was an interaction that lasted only a few minutes.

The irony hit me. I felt sad about the exact same thing that brought her joy.

Before she left, we exchanged introductions. Her name is Grace.


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What a Difference a Day Makes

It’s been less than 48 hours since my last post and something incredible happened.

Within 12 hours of noticing all of the out-of-the-ordinary blooms in my garden and leaves still stuck on the trees, autumn or more appropriately FALL, arrived.

It really did happen overnight. Yesterday morning, the maple tree that was highlighted in my blog on Sunday, dropped most of its leaves. They fell straight down to the ground, creating a beautiful carpet of red leaves. (The little gargoyle statue sitting nearby seems to not want to look!)

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Here’s how it looked less than 24 hours earlier.

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Just goes to prove Mark Twain’s point about New England weather.  “If you don’t like the weather in New England now, just wait a few minutes.”  (or in this case, a few hours!)