It’s been over a year since my last garden post. And, while I have about a dozen stories in draft form in my head, I’ve had too many distractions to actually sit down to write. Thankfully, the bluebirds have returned for the third consecutive year. And another spring has sprung in New England.
This year’s season of renewal also marks a year since the sudden passing of my mother. I’d shared many stories about gardening with her over the past decade and while she disliked attention, she loved reading my Garden with Grace blog. She was especially touched with a post I wrote at the end of the summer of 2020, Finding Church in the Garden. I’m so glad I wrote that story while mom was still here. It’s a reminder to pay tribute to the living.
Over the past 12 months, I’ve been fortunate to have my garden as a place to experience and work through my grief. It was a feeling I’d never experienced before and is difficult to put into words. There’s a saying that “grief is love with no place to go.” While I somewhat understand that, it recently hit me that my grief went right where it needed to go – back into the garden.
Just one year ago, during the spring of 2021, there was still a lot of isolation due to Covid-19 . Vaccines were just starting and people weren’t yet gathering together in groups. A mild spring was a huge relief as it allowed me to have friends visit in the garden. This was very much needed since there were no formal services after my mother’s death.
One of those visits was on a cold afternoon just before Memorial Day weekend. My friends Marjorie, Elise, and Liz came over for a ‘garden tour’ and Friday afternoon cocktails on The Porch. It was Elise’s first visit to my garden and she really took interest in my focus to remove a manicured lawn and create a welcoming space for wildlife and pollinators.
Elise is one of those friends whom I haven’t known for long, and don’t see often, however, we have a connection to one another through a shared network of wonderful people across our community. She is the reason I finally have a new blog post this evening.
A few weeks ago, she asked if she could create a video using photos from my Garden with GraceInstagram account. Elise is the music director at a local church and wanted the video as a project to celebrate spring. I was honored to be asked to participate. On Earth Day 2022, Elise and I chatted via a recorded Zoom call for over an hour.
Rather than tell you what we discussed, you are invited to listen and watch for a 7 minute recap of our hour+ conversation. I hope you enjoy Elise’s work as much as I do!
This garden story is a tribute to my mom. She’s the one who had the original vision that transformed my grandfather’s quarter acre of lawn into a grouping of perennial gardens over 25+ years. The idea for such a transformation was a bit of a shock. Especially, because my grandfather’s lawn was his pride and joy. It was the the greenest, most lush grass in all of southern New Hampshire – maybe even in all of the Granite State. It there was ever a weed to be found, he’d be right on it. However, over the years, the reality hit. The time and cost for the upkeep of a pristine lawn is a monumental challenge…and honestly, really bad for our environment.
Now, the formerly highly manicured lawn is a series of small ‘garden rooms’ as my mother calls them. She often reflects how she created her plan by looking out the backyard from inside the house. Over time — as in the time of over two decades — today’s perennial gardens have very little grass or lawn and instead are a series of ‘rooms’ with sitting areas to relax and take in the view (And in many cases, enjoy a garden inspired cocktail. Raise your hand if you’d like a Lavender Gimlet!)
Back to the garden and the thoughts about church. When asked what kind of garden we have, I used to just say, “Oh, just a perennial garden – with a small area for summer vegetables.” Now, I often refer to the same space as a cottage garden – because of an elderly neighbor. I think of how he (Dennis) used to find a solace in our garden before his wife passed away from cancer. While Maggie was ill, he would bring his dog, Luke, to visit and stroll through the garden (it was always a good stop for Luke on hot summer days, as it’s customary for all canine visitors to receive treats and fresh water when they stop by). Dennis emigrated to the US from England decades ago, and always shared how our gardens reminded him of the cottage gardens “back home”. Because of his testimony, I confidently now say our garden is a ‘cottage garden’.
According to my mother, this cottage garden is also our family church. It’s not only a place for solace, we, as well as Dennis and other friends have often found over the years, but also a destination worthy of contemplation, prayer, meditation, and gratitude. I grew up Catholic, and always think of chimes, kneelers, Saints, baptismal fonts, candles, stained glass, and incense as being important parts of the physical things one would find in a church. Well, you can find all those items in our garden, too.
We have chimes and kneelers.
We also have Saints and fonts (well, actually birdbaths – and there are seven across the various garden rooms).
Our Saints include Saint Fiacre, the Patron Saint of Gardening. He overlooks a birdbath and has a prominent spot in the garden landscape all year long.
We also have Saint Francis, that Patron Saint of Animals. He also keeps watch in the garden year round. The neighborhood garden cat especially likes his company.
And while not technically a Saint, there is some diversity of garden statuary with the inclusion of Budai often referred to as Happy Buddah or Fat Buddah – a harbinger of abundance and good health. He sits on a small granite block, keeping him off the ground, and faces the back door of my home that leads to the garden. You can find him sitting among some roses – not far too far from Saint Fiacre.
Oh, and there are many candles, stained glass, incense, as well as smudging herbs like sage, rosemary, and lavender (yes, we use the lavender for more than cocktails!)
When this garden started it’s transition from an area of green lawn to the cottage garden we now enjoy, there was never the overt intent to create a ‘church’ environment. It’s one of those things that just happened. I’m sure other gardeners can attest to how this happens and may see similarities in their own environments, too.
I usually end my garden stories with a themed quote. But this post is different because my mother inspired it – so, I’m ending with a piece by her favorite poet. I think this is perfect!
Some Keep the Sabbath Going to Church
by Emily Dickinson
Some keep the Sabbath going to Church – I keep it, staying at Home – With a Bobolink for a Chorister – And an Orchard, for a Dome –
Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice – I, just wear my Wings – And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church, Our little Sexton – sings.
God preaches, a noted Clergyman – And the sermon is never long, So instead of getting to Heaven, at last – I’m going, all along.
from (02138: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, ) Source: The Poems of Emily Dickinson Edited by R. W. Franklin (Harvard University Press, 1999)
Interesting note: I never realized this poem was from the Belknap Press of Harvard University until I searched it for this post. There’s no relation to me, but it seems that a better poem could not have been planned for this piece.
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.”
You can have the most artistic ambition and grandest plan for your garden, but the reality is a ‘green thumb’ really doesn’t happen by accident. While William Kent once said, “All gardening is landscape painting,” a beautiful, bountiful garden filled with annuals, perennials, and vegetables is actually a work of art and science.
The Science Cafe Nashua recently hosted it’s July gathering at the Riverwalk Cafe in Downtown Nashua (New Hampshire) to discuss why it’s important for gardeners to understand how science impacts their gardening aspirations. The discussion on “The Art and Science of Gardening” while free to attend, was a ‘sell-out’ with all 80+ seats at the cafe filled with gardeners ranging from novice beginners who participate in local community gardens driven by GrowNashua to expert master gardeners with beautifully designed landscapes that are worthy of Fine Gardening magazine.
While the midsummer topic was compelling, it was the strong lineup of panelists who brought people to the cafe during the midst of a week-long July heatwave. For two-full hours we participated in a Q&A session with gardening experts including:
The Art & Science of Gardening Panelists during the July 11, 2018 Science Cafe Nashua. (L-R: Gene Harrington, Cameron Bonsey, Isabelle Burke, Dave McConville, Paul Shea)
The lively discussion covered a full range of gardening topics, including how to control blight (specifically in tomatoes and peppers) to why we see so many rabbits in the Nashua area, and what’s the best way to ‘feed’ soil.
Here are a few of my big ‘ah-has’ from the panelists who did an excellent job at explaining how science impacts gardening. (If you’re reading this blog after attending this Science Cafe Nashua session, feel free to share what you learned with a comment.)
Smokers – You can attract blight! Nightshade plants like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant are in the same plant family that include tobacco. Paul Shea explained that nightshades are very susceptible to blight – it’s a big issue and can wipe out entire tobacco farms.
With the smaller scale of a backyard vegetable garden, blight is typically spread when leaves touch contaminated soil. Helpful hints to avoid blight included keeping plant leaves trimmed well above the soil line and watering at the bottom of the plant to drive moisture directly into the soil versus via leaves.
Here’s what really surprised me. Gardeners who smoke can be more prone to finding blight on their plants – the two reasons are that some gardeners leave cigarette butts (remember tobacco attracts blight) in their gardens and the nicotine from tobacco sticks to fingers and spreads to plants when touching, pruning, and picking. This nicotine residue of tobacco attracts blight. So, gardeners who smoke now have another reason to stop their habit if they want a bountiful harvest.
Bees don’t like the red flowers. A question was asked why bees haven’t returned to one participant’s garden this year. After some discussion with Isabelle Burke, we learned that the person seeing fewer bees this year changed their garden color scheme and has almost all red flowering plants and very few purple and yellow flowers, which are favorites of bees. This surprised me for a few reasons – since pollinators include hummingbirds, and they like red, I just assumed that all pollinators, including bees, were attracted to that color. I also didn’t realize bees are drawn to color. I thought they were only attracted to the scent of flowers.
Nashua is being overrun by rabbits. Gene Harrington told us that rabbit populations have an 11 year cycle and our region appears to be in year seven or eight of that cycle. So we should be seeing fewer bunnies in coming years. He shared that he’s heard over the past few years from more customers who are seeing rabbits and, of course, they reach out to Gene to find solutions to their rabbit problems. Apparently, the best way to control rabbit damage is to put up fencing/barriers around the plants that they find delicious to eat. Another option is to plant things rabbits don’t find so delicious. In my case, the rabbits in my neighborhood love the clover that I’ve been planting as an alternative to grass, so I will just keep buying clover seed to replace it. (But I will confess, I actually enjoy seeing bunnies hop through the garden and just hope that the experience of another Science Cafe participant doesn’t happen while I’m watching – his garden bunny became lunch for a red-tailed hawk – which are also prevalent in our region. I guess everyone needs to eat.)
Soil lives and breathes – we need to treat it well. Cameron Bonsey talked a lot about soil. He likened the work of creating soil blends at Coast of Maine to the craft brewery movement in New Hampshire. He explained that their employees experiment with different mixes for different purposes. I specifically asked him about their Stonington Blend that I blogged about late last year. He explained that soil is all about biology and something things plants respond differently to different mixes of nitrogen, castings, etc. He also talked about the importance of mulch and how it feeds soil. Cameron quipped that “all the organic matter under the mulch is eating and greeting – there’s a great party going on under there.” This is why it’s better to mulch with a compost-based product and not cheap wood chips that take forever to break down and don’t provide nutrients back into soil. (Hearing this made me feel good as we stopped spreading bark chips in our garden because of this and started to mulch with compost instead.)
GMOs are not a natural evolution. There was a question about the scientific aspect versus personal feelings on the surge of GMOs (genetically modified organisms). This seemed to be a sensitive topic to both the person asking the question, as well to the panelists asked for their input. Dave McConville, the panel’s permaculture expert shared that GMOs are not a natural evolution, while not speaking for or against them. I urge you to learn more about permaculture at Dave’s website – here’s a teaser, “Although permaculture is first and foremost a design process, it is also a philosophy, a life style and a framework for making decisions. Permaculture gives us a toolkit with a set of ethics and principles, design processes and proven strategies to help us design a better culture.”
Ultimately, I learned that true gardeners – no matter how long we’ve been digging this hobby – are always eager to learn from one another and to share our own experiences, including the successes and failures. What worked this year, might not work next year – and there’s often a cause that someone learned before us. For example the gardener who wants to see more bees left the Science Cafe with the the information not to plant all red flowers next year and perhaps add a little more lavender – a favorite of bees.
Speaking of lavender, here are a few more photos from the July 2018 Science Cafe Nashua at the Riverwalk Cafe. Let’s start with the top two photos that include the fabulous “Gardener’s Gimlet” made with local lavender syrup that was offered as Riverwalk’s special craft cocktail of the evening in honor of the Science Cafe event (the woman in the top right photo with the gimlet is Jane Ruddock, co-owner of Riverwalk and quite the expert gardener herself). The other photos are of the full house of gardeners asking questions and sharing ideas and experiences.
“There are no gardening mistakes, only experiments.”
One of my favorite things about gardening is to find creative uses for harvested items, especially the herbs. Over the years, I’ve dried herbs to create interesting crafts with everlasting flowers such as lavender. However, a favorite way to save and savor some favorites from the garden involve cocktail infusions.
When I have an abundance of hot peppers at the end of each summer, I buy a bottle of plain vodka. Something like Smirnoff works well (though I do have a friend who chastises me, insisting I should only use top shelf spirits – – let’s just say that we agree to disagree!). I toss in a few spicy peppers that have been partially cut to the new bottle of vodka and within a week, it becomes a spicy ingredient for a fantastic Bloody Mary! And as the Pepper Vodka ages, it gets even hotter — so I simply top the bottle off from time to time with more plain vodka. It’s seems like an endless bottle by mid winter. By the next summer, I’m really to start all over again.
In years past, my neighbor usually had so many peaches and plums that he resorted to begging his friends to take them from him – or he secretly delivered them to our homes, whether we wanted them or not! With his harvests, I’ve infused the peaches and plums in brandy.
Other experiments included pears infused in brandy and rhubarb infused in vodka. (Those were never made again, but were worth trying. In the end, it was a waste of good pears and rhubarb that could have been better used in a baked item where they would be enjoyed more.)
This year, I tried two new infusions. Blackberry Brandy and Lemongrass Vodka.
My friend Bobbi lives at the NH seacoast and is a fellow gardener. I love that her garden has a blackberry and blueberry patch, along with some pear and apple trees (and a pony named Sachi!) At the end of last summer, I paid her a visit and returned home with armfuls of peaches, pears, blueberries, and blackberries. The peaches, pears and blueberries were saved for eating. But, the blackberries were picked with the intent to make a batch of Blackberry Brandy for the 2017 holiday season.
Blackberry Brandy is very easy to prepare. I simply took a large (sterilized) glass jar, added the blackberries (about 1.5 c) and a few tablespoons sugar (since the berries were more tart than sweet this year), lightly muddled the ingredients and then poured a bottle of E&J Brandy over the mixture. I let it sit in my cool, dark basement for 8 weeks, and stirred the dark, thick contents of the bottle weekly. Then I strained it through cheesecloth and bottled it. I’m pleased with the results, but will add more blackberries if I try this again next year.
The surprise creation of the summer was the Lemongrass Vodka. I’ve grown lemongrass in the garden on and off for the past 20 years. Lemongrass plants are sometimes hard to find, so I simply get a stalk of lemongrass from the grocery store in the spring, put it in water, let it root and plant it in the garden in early summer (sometimes in a container, sometimes in the ground.) It makes a beautiful filler plant and sparks good conversation when friends wander through the garden and realize that it’s very fragrant.
I browsed online for ways to create an infusion and all suggested cutting up the inner parts of the lemongrass stalk – some suggested chopping it in a food processor, but I just hand cut it. The stalks on my lemongrass were cut a few weeks before I did this project, which make them smaller, drier, and less pliable. You can see in the photo on the left, the lemon grass just sitting in the jar of freshly poured vodka. Within two weeks, the spirit took on a beautiful golden hue.
My Lemongrass Vodka has an herbaceous fragrance and taste with just a light citrus background note. I’ve tried a few cocktails with the infusion, including using the spirit in a straight up dry martini with hint of vermouth. I’ve also tried it with a bit of Lillet instead of vermouth. Both options were good. Most recently, I mixed equal parts of Sake and Lemongrass Vodka and served it very cold. That was also nice — and a little lighter as far as the hit of alcohol from a straight vodka cocktail.
I ended up with enough Lemongrass Vodka to fill two small bottles – one for my bar and one for a friend who appreciates unique cocktails as much as I do. He and his wife are on a kick now making a lot of Asian cuisine, including Ramen dishes. I’m looking forward to hear how they create an Lemongrass cocktail to pair well with their newfound culinary experiments!
As I look ahead to planning my 2018 garden in the coming months, I hope to find new items to grow to bring to the bar. Perhaps this will even be the year to create an official Cocktail Garden! (Afterall, it would be an ideal setting for the perfect party!)
We’ve waited for months for the first lemon to be ready to pick (almost a full year, actually), only to see hundreds of tiny lemons, barely the size of peas, fall to the ground during 3-4 growth cycles. While that may seem discouraging to some people, this plant has been enjoyed even without fruit for months, indoors and out. Its tiny white and purple flowers are extremely fragrant, as is the beautiful, shiny, variegated foliage. When it isn’t indoors filling the garden room with lemon perfume, it’s outdoors bringing delight to the honeybees.
By late May, the pink lemon tree was moved from the garden room indoors to the back patio where it enjoyed outdoor living for 3 full months. However, with the temperatures expected to drop into the 40’s (F) in New Hampshire tonight, it is time to bring this beauty indoors during the overnight hours
But, before that happens, we needed to pick a lemon. Today, the first lemon was harvested! The pink lemon variety never really turns completely yellow – it’s a creamy yellow color with green stripes. The fruit size is small, more like a lime or golf ball.
A lot of thought went into what to do with this lemon – we really wanted to be able to taste its lemony flavor, but with only one lemon, there’d be hardly enough juice for even a thimble-full of lemonade. The truth is that I didn’t care what the end offering would be, I just wanted to cut open the fruit to see its pink flesh. It looked a little more salmon color than bright pink – and was beautiful.
When you grow your own lemons, you enjoy fruit that is not covered in wax because it was shipped to your market from thousands of miles away. Instead, the outside of the lemon rendered a big spray of oil when it was cut and then squeezed.
Thankfully, if you have vodka in the house, you can skip the lemonade and go right for a lemon cocktail. I did a quick search online to find a recipe that only needed a few ingredients and Ina Garten offered the solution. Her recipe for a Lemon Drop cocktail was perfect – I simply cut the ingredient portions in half for my one, lonely lemon.
Voila! The most delicious Lemon Drop Cocktail that took nearly a year to make!
Cheers! And, here’s to the remaining 4 lemons that should be ready in as many weeks. If you have suggestions on how I should plan to use them, let me know via a comment!