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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Weeding Thyme

Once again, a calendar is not needed when paying attention to the garden. It’s been easy to know we’re in late July because it’s time to weed the thyme.

A few years ago, we replaced bark mulched paths in the garden with blue stone. The spaces between the blue stone are perfect for planting Creeping Thyme. It spreads between the spaces of the stones, emitting a soft herbal fragrance when people and pets walk along the paths.

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In late May, the thyme produces flowers bringing the stone to life, adding extra color to the late spring garden and creating patterns of purple and green in the spaces where the stones almost meet. While we’ve planted various colors of thyme – purple, white, and hot pink over the years, the thyme with purple blossoms is the hardiest and has outlived other colors over the years. We’ve also learned that while Woolly Thyme adds texture and a lighter, almost silvery color among the blue stone, it doesn’t last as long as the regular creeping thyme.

The flowers on the thyme bloom from late May until early July in our Nashua, NH garden. It’s at that point on the calendar when the garden truly transitions from spring to summer. The purple and pink colors across the garden fade as the green, orange and red plants take over.

This year, the weeds have emerged during this transition period and have been more prolific than ever. We usually see this trend later in the summer, so attribute the abundance of midsummer weeds to the ‘extreme drought’ our region experienced in 2016. (Or perhaps I’m just noticing more weeds since attending a weeding seminar with Roger Swain at the Nashua Public Library earlier this year?!)

Over the 10 days, my mother and I have spent a combined 25+ hours weeding the various beds and paths throughout the garden. Her time out there beats mine by 2:1!  The challenge has been the infiltration of weeds with the thyme. In addition to the typical crabgrass, it seems the ideal impostor weed has been the spotted spurge.

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You see, it’s a flat weed that starts under the thyme plants. It spreads like thyme as well. The bigger challenge: As you walk along the garden paths, it’s not easy to see until suddenly it’s huge because it’s taken over the delicate thyme planted in that space. The single deep root sends shoots that spread up to a few feet in diameter. And, it seems to happen overnight. When it does, it’s difficult to remove just the weed, so inevitably, some sprigs of thyme are pulled in the mix.

Yes, there’s also white clover mixed in too, which is my fault. However, while some gardeners consider white clover to be a weed, it’s the latest solution to the Sad Sod Situation I’ve shared in the past. (I’ll save that story update for later – but here’s a sneak preview: The second planting of lawn two years ago died during the 2016 drought. It was decided we’d fill that area with white clover last fall and this spring, and the seed shaker helped scatter a little clover to a few paths where it wasn’t intended to grow.)

Even after hours and hours (and yes, more hours) of weeding through the thyme over the past week…sometimes feeling like I was wasting time…I must admit there’s something cathartic about the process of weeding.  It allows me to get incredibly close to to the garden and forces me to slow down. It takes time to find the roots of weeds and fully remove them. Additionally, when working so close to the ground, it’s easier to notice soil conditions, pest issues, and beneficial garden creatures including dragonflies, toads, and worms.

That said, I’m thrilled the worst part of weeding thyme is behind us so we can spend the rest of the summer enjoying thyme!

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“Give a weed an inch and it will take a yard.”


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Pussy Willows Galore!

The Japanese Fantail Pussy Willow has a history of over 20 years in our garden. My mom originally received the first cuttings from a work friend who had a connection to one of the Boston Garden Clubs.  She was excited to bring home five small rooted branches of this exotic plant for the garden. She even had a few to spare and shared them with a neighbor across the street.  Of course, the cuttings that ventured across the street took off and grew into a beautiful tree.  The ones my mother planted didn’t make it through the first season.

So the next year, she grabbed a cutting from the neighbor. This exchange took a few seasons for the plant to finally get established in the garden it was originally intended. Eventually, with pruning to remove bottom branches, my mother created a small, beautiful tree.

In late winter the weeping, twisted, burgundy colored branches of the Fantail Pussy Willow are covered with tiny, soft, shimmery silver buds, actually known as catkins. By mid-spring, the branches become covered with gold puffs (I almost wrote ‘Gold Fingers’ in keeping with this story’s title!!) of pollen. By summer it leafs out to create a unique summer /fall ornamental shrub. 

Over time, new cuttings from the established Pussy Willow were shared with friends and neighbors, but unfortunately with a less than 50 percent success rate (mostly because non-gardeners wanted to try to plant them and didn’t follow the simple instructions.) The one other place where the cuttings did well was in Hampton Falls, on the New Hampshire seacoast. My friend Bobbi – a true gardener –  was able to create a beautiful tree from one of the early cuttings. It eventually reached over 8 feet tall.

Everything changed in 2011 when the now infamous Halloween Nor’Easter hit New England. The heavy, wet snow decimated many of the trees and shrubs across the region – including the Pussy Willows that we worked so hard to propagate in Nashua and Hampton Falls. The weight of the snow and wind split the trees in half, all the way to the ground. (Lilacs and Bradford Pear trees were also hit hard across the area.)

Bobbi chose to simply remove the damaged tree from her Seacoast garden. In Nashua, my neighbor did some pruning and was able to keep most of the height of the tree shape he created.  On the other hand, in our garden, a decision was made to cut the damage all the way back to ground level to see what would happen. (We also knew we could start all over again with a cutting from next door!) 

While this Pussy Willow grows relatively fast, it took a couple of years for it to eventually fill in the back area of the garden.  Since receiving the first cuttings 20 years ago, my mother always called it a ‘Weeping Pussy Willow’ (Fake Gardening News!)

We finally learned this plant’s true name at the annual Boston Flower Show in 2014 – it is a Japanese Fantail Pussy Willow.  There was a vendor at the show from the midwest with thousands of cut stems, selling them for about  $15/bundle.  My mom and I talked to the grower and learned this Pussy Willow is meant to be a shrub and should be cut back hard every year in late winter, just at the silvery catkins start to emerge.

Even with this newfound knowledge, we never got out in time during 2014 to cut the branches back – then in 2015, during our hysterical/historical winter, the deep snow cover through late March made it a challenge to even get to that part of the garden.

Finally, all conditions were perfect in 2016!  I went out on a bright late winter afternoon and cut the beautiful branches back by almost half.  By the time I was finished, I was worried that I’d cut too much from what suddenly became a bare tree trunk. On the plus side, we now had a huge pile of Pussy Willows branches to use for decoration.

Yes, Pussy Willows Galore!

I used many in my own home and shared even more with friends and neighbors. They could also be enjoyed on Main Street in Downtown Nashua at Scontsas Fine Jewelry & Home Decor. My friends, Philip and Amalia are both gardeners and used many of the Pussy Willows to decorate their beautiful store, inside and out last spring. (If you visit their store, tell them I sent you – they are regular readers of this blog, too!)

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Pussy Willows for a Decorative Spring Touch at Scontsas Fine Jewelry & Home Decor

The cut stems, dry and keep their silvery buds when put into dry containers.  For people who want to try to grow their own Pussy Willow shrubs, a little bit of water in the container keeps the branches alive, allowing them to root and eventually transplanted. Here are examples of keeping the branches in dry containers in my home (on the left) and also being enjoyed at Liz’s home (right). Liz was highlighted in the Garden with Grace Blog a few years ago when we Gardened at the Gardner Museum in Boston.

As March 2017 arrived, I’ve now CAREFULLY followed a full cycle of the Japanese Fantail Pussy Willow. While it was cut back hard last year, there were still some beautiful curvy branches to cut for decoration – but not nearly the bushels we had in 2016!  dsc_0636I went light on the cutting this year, so that that we can have a larger and more mature bounty in 2018. In late February, I put five branches in water (with a few branches of magnolia and flowering crabapple) to force some early spring flowers in the house. The magnolia bloomed within a week – the crabapple should open within the next few days.

DSC_0649The Japanese Fantail Pussy Willow is already self-rooting and will be planted back into the garden in late May.

The cycle continues.

Special Note: I’ve had this blog – with its clever title – in mind since last spring. But held off on posting because I wanted to highlight a full growing cycle of the gorgeous Japanese Fantail Pussy Willow in our garden. I planned to publish this story in late fall of 2016. Ironically and unfortunately, when I first completed this post, one word in the title was making headlines tied to the US Presidential Election – and honestly, I didn’t want to change it. As a result, I held off to rewrite the ending and finally finished and posted this story in early March 2017!  (I’m sure that some Google searches will unexpectedly bring some search results to this blog since this word is still appearing in news feeds today — for those who found my story this way, thank you for reading until the end!) 


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Red Solo Cup, I Fill You Up…Let’s Have a (Garden) Party

(I’ve edited the title of this blog thanks to the inspiration of my friend Liz…and Toby Keith)

Over the years, I’ve enjoyed the promise of a new gardening season by starting a few seeds in my house in early to mid March. Usually one or two varieties of tomatoes and hot peppers, along with a culinary herb or two thrown in (most often basil or cilantro.)

Seven years ago, that annual feeling of promise turned my gardening hobby into a full-blown commitment! A Costco-sized package of Red Solo Cups, that would have been more appropriate for a college keg party, became my new favorite gardening tool in 2009. Using an icepick, I carefully poked three holes for drainage in the bottom of every one….that in itself took over an hour!

FB_IMG_1459601989890A variety of organic seeds were ordered online and a new shelf for warming trays and adjustable grow lights that were stored in the basement, transformed my little sun porch into a tiny green house. By early May, I had over 100 plants ready for my garden (and all my friends’ gardens!)

By Memorial Day, the seedlings were outside in their summer containers and garden beds.

In August, we enjoyed the fruits of our nearly six months of labor. Of all the heirloom tomatoes, the Black Krim were the hands-down favorite with Brandywine being a close second.

It’s been seven years since I’ve started seedlings indoors in late winter. While I really do enjoy the ritual of researching new seeds to plant, I’ve been leaving that part of my gardening process to local nurseries and greenhouses in recent years.

Today, after I fell across the 2009 photo with all the Red Solo Cups, I admit that I had a sudden urge to pick up a bag of potting soil while I stocked up on woodpecker suet cakes at the Nashua Farmer’s Exchange this afternoon. I let the urge pass, and will save my impulse buys for my first visit to the local greenhouse in early May.


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Gardening Epiphany

The post-gardening months of November and December were remarkable as 2015 came to a close.  It was unusally warm as autumn transitioned into winter.  And, for the first time that I can remember, the outdoor water spigots were still open on December 31st. (I just shut them off this week vs. the standard ritual of this happening by Thanksgiving weekend.)

Either Mother Nature was offering penance for last winter’s historic snowfall in New Hampshire, or she was just resting up for the coming New Year.

Most notable as the year ended, an amazing sight appeared on Christmas Day. Mother Nature offered the gift of a single viola (Johnny Jump Up) blossom in an area of the garden that is literally ‘between a rock and a hard place’. The honeysuckle on the back trellis pushed out a few orange-pink blooms, as well. It was a sunny, warm day on December 25th (the First Day of Christmas!) So warm in fact, the furnace was off for the day and the windows and doors had to be opened…..oh, and yes,  the flowers were blooming!

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It was so different from Christmas Days past when it was almost impossible to go outside with temperatures in the single digits. But as always in New England, you just need to wait for a moment (or two) and everything changes.  Snow and ice finally arrived four days later and the garden is now under a soft white blanket to sleep for the next few weeks.

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Don’t let a sleeping garden fool you.  Now is the most exciting time of the year for this garden blogger.  January is the month when I find that gardening activities are the most focused and important.

I browse the hundreds of photos that I’ve taken over the past season and make notes of what needs to be moved and removed. And this year, I’m adding the best photos from the season to my new Garden with Grace on Instagram page to complement this blog.

I flip through catalogues that still arrive by mail in January and February to see what is marked “NEW!” for 2016.

I read old gardening books and journals that are stored in my potting shed.  And this year, I’m reading a new book (a thoughtful Christmas gift from my friend Liz) that is a fascinating guide, called Wicked Plants: The Weed that Killed Lincoln’s Mother & Other Botanical Atrocities

I confer with my mother (my gardening mentor and co-gardener!) about plans for the coming spring. Our discussions over the past few years always involve the same three basic questions:

  1. Should we start some things from seed? (No. Not after that time in 2009 when we ended up with nearly 200 red solo cups of seedlings in our sun/garden room.)
  2. Will we order any special or “NEW!” plants to add to the landscape? (No. Let’s mark what we want from the catalogues and patronize local nurseries in the spring, instead.)
  3. What are we going to do with the two areas of grass that died again? (Don’t know yet. But the grass from my Sad Sod Situation story, just over a year ago needs attention again!)

These questions will no doubt be brought up in the coming weeks (usually during an evening ritual that my grandfather called ‘Coffee Break’. Others call it Cocktail Hour!) No matter the season or time of year, gardening is a 365 day obsession in my home.

So here it is, my 2016 Gardening Epiphany that arrived on January 6, the 12th Day of Christmas: You can take the Gardener of out of the Garden, but you can never take the Garden out of the Gardener.

 

 

 


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Pussycat, Pussycat, Where have you been?

As plants in the garden evolve and change over the years, so has the collection of “Garden Cats” that have taken ownership of my property. It’s funny, because not one of the “Garden Cats” of the past 20 years has belonged to me!

There are too many to mention, but some of the favorites are remembered in a collage in my potting shed.

L-R clockwise: Momma Cat, Cuddles, Bradley, Peppermint. (Momma Cat is the only one still living at 19 yrs old!)

L-R clockwise: Momma Cat, Cuddles, Bradley, Peppermint. (Momma Cat is the only one still living at 19 yrs old!)

For about 10 years, a long haired black cat with bright green eyes has visited the garden somewhat regularly. He’s always been shy, until this year’s gardening season started. His name is Oreo and his owners live a few houses away. Oreo prefers to be an outdoor cat and can be seen here and there and everywhere around the neighborhood.

When Grace was still with us, Oreo would watch intently as we’d walk by, always staying out of her sight (Grace was a big dog!), but I’d always see him peering around corners or from under bushes nearby.  I think that he realizes that there’s no longer a dog at my house.

This was especially evident today. Oreo’s ‘cattitude’ was in full force. Everytime I looked out the window, or walked outside, there he was, taking ownership of the garden.  He especially loves being near the Wine & Roses Wiegela (it seems to be an aphrodisiac for cats when the pink flowers are in bloom, similar to a kiwi vine that was in the garden a few years ago!)

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Oreo resting near the Wine & Roses Wiegela today.

Of course, he’s interested in the Catmint too, but I think that’s due to the fact that the chipmunks have a path nearby.

Oreo enjoying the view (and fragrance of the Catmint flowers in bloom!)

Oreo enjoying the view (and fragrance of the Catmint flowers in bloom!)

I never thought I’d blog about cats. I’m allergic to them. I don’t own any. And, I’ve always been a ‘dog-person’ as is evident by the premise on which this blog was created a few years ago.

However, I do enjoy the company of my “Garden Cats.”  And as any cat-person would tell you, you don’t own them. They own you! In this case, I feel honored that Oreo, and all the other “Garden Cats” of the past two decades, have selected to take ownership of such a special place (and of course, me!)

Just as “Good Queen Bess”, (who inspired the nursery rhyme ‘Pussycat, Pussycat’) decreed that an old cat could wander around her throne room as long as it got rid of mice, I allow the old (and young) cats to wander the garden as long as they do the same! Meoww!


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Observing ‘the Risk to Blossom’ Today

The weather in New England, specifically where I live, in southern New Hampshire (NH) has forced me to follow my calendar this year. This fall, the garden continues to offer daily surprises, even though we’re well in to November and just over a month away from the Winter Solstice.

We’ve had a spectacular foliage season in NH – lots of red, orange, and yellow to decorate the landscape. This Japanese Maple is a good example of the bright colors:

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Typically, the 7-10 days after Halloween is a big leaf raking/blowing week.  We’re fortunate in Nashua to have curb-side pickup of soft yard waste until the end of November.  In past years, the leaves were blown/raked, shredded, and either put to the curb or added to the compost bin by now.

Today, I looked out of the window.  If I didn’t know better, I’d thought it was a beautiful mid-October day.

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Not only have the leaves refused to fall, but some of the flowers in the garden are still blooming as though it were still late summer. Most unusual is when I look out to the back patio and see that the Mandevilla is still looking great! I’ve never had one of these plants last in my garden/yard past mid September because even the smallest touch of frost kills this tropical plant in an instant.

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While there has been a chill in the air the past 6 weeks,  we’ve yet to have a hard freeze.  What a treat it was to walk thru the garden and find some surprises on November 9!  Typically, the Hollyhocks bloom mid-late summer.  This one got wrapped into the Morning Glories. While the Glories are not so glorious anymore, there’s still one last bloom being pushed out by the Hollyhock. I can actually see it from across the yard while looking out of my home-office window.

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Weeks ago, I thought I had seen the ‘last rose of summer’. Maybe I did and these are ‘the last roses of autumn’? If they stick it out, they could be the first roses of winter.

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Also paying a surprise visit today were the ‘Pinks’ aka: Dianthus and the ‘Indian Blanket’ aka: Gaillardia.

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Isn’t Mother Nature incredible? She definitely has a plan.

It makes me wonder if these flowers in the garden today were late bloomers or perhaps they are the best example of Anais Nin’s quote that has always been an inspiration to me in early spring:

“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”


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The Summer Ritual of a Daily Hummingbird Watch

Mother Nature does an excellent job to let us know that the seasons are changing in New England.

The biggest hint that she offers is the changing color of the foliage across our region, with little flecks of red and yellow peeking out across a lush green landscape, sometimes as early as late August.

The other hint is the arrival and departure of the Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds to the garden.  To me, this cue is more indicative of the transition from winter to summer and summer to winter than the changing trees.

There is always so much anticipation in mid April when the hummingbird sugar water (we call it “Hummingbird Hooch”) feeders go up for the season.  The arrival of the hummingbirds to the garden is a sign that the spring flowers including the lilacs and iris are starting to bloom.

This summer, evenings on the back patio included the ritual of a daily “Hummingbird Watch” from 7:00-8:30pm each evening. It was the same, yet different every night.  Different visitors would join this ritual but conversation would always stop (or at least tone down to a whisper) when the hummingbirds arrived. The males were very active and were the most frequent “hummingbird hooch” consumers during the early part of the summer. (The spectators of these birds would enjoy their own hooch, too!  This summer’s favorite was the Garden Cucumber Cocktail or a refreshing. cold glass of Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc.)  Here’s one of my favorite photos from June of a Ruby Thoated male that includes a red weigela in the background.

RubyThroated Male

While being able to capture any photo of a hummingbird is exciting to me (I use a simple point and shoot Canon Powershot Elph310 HS camera), I had a goal after capturing this shot of being able to snap a photo of one of the birds in the garden, getting nectar from one of the many flowers that I’d see them visiting during the day (of course, always when the camera was not in my hand!)

Finally, in early August, as I started to think about the pending departure of the this year’s resident hummingbird residents, a new perennial Cardinal Flower bloomed and attracted female hummingbirds all day long. I finally met my goal by capturing this shot.

IMG_4718For as long as it seems to take for April to arrive each year, without fail, September always comes too quickly.

This year was no exception.  By late August the hummingbirds were ingesting 3x as much sugar water than they consumed between May and July. It was another cue that the summer season was about to change – these tiny powerhouses always need to fuel up before their long flights for their winter vacations in South America.

By Labor day, the male Ruby-Throated birds were gone, headed south (probably to Costa Rica) to claim their winter territories and wait for their mates. By mid-September, the females were gone, too. The feeders are now empty and stored away until April 2015.

It’s time to create a new daily garden ritual.