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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Oh, How I Love those Baby Blues!

Last May, I wrote about the early spring arrival of Eastern Bluebirds in my garden, just as New Hampshire and many places around the globe started to ‘lock down’ at the beginning of the Covid-19 uncertainty. At the time, the bluebirds brought a glimmer of hope, but also a bit of uncertainty.

The hope was that finally, after years of trying to attract bluebirds to the garden, they arrived — just out of the blue. But in fact, while their arrival was a surprise, it shouldn’t have been. In hindsight, I realize the tree cutting in my dense city neighborhood just over a year ago opened the space to the liking of these beautiful and once endangered songbirds.

Perhaps the surprise is what caused my uncertainty. It was all about their nesting box selection – an older birdhouse, nestled among shrubs (a Japanese Fantail Pussywillow and a collection of Ninebark and Weigela). It was always more of a decorative box that was put up years ago – after we removed the bluebird box set up over a decade earlier. This decorative box or bird house was embellished with a copper roof that constantly needed to be nailed back on, and ended up being a spot where the house sparrows raised their young for a few years.

The female Eastern Bluebird thinks this house is just right!

To add to my uncertainty was the (surprising!) input and advice I received from the few Eastern Bluebird groups I visited and (briefly) joined on social media. While I know the members are all well-intentioned, I was really disappointed at how I was berated for the nest box the bluebirds chose to make their 2020 home. I was told that I was not doing the birds any favor by letting them nest there and that I must watch for and kill any sparrows that might take over the next, among many other things. Honestly, it was overwhelming and didn’t seem right as I’ve always trusted Mother Nature to make good decisions.

Within a few weeks, I decided to trust my gut and trust my instincts (and Mother Nature, though I know she can seem cruel at times.) I became obsessed watching the box and the birds’ behavior. The sparrows and blue jays were horrible, always trying to overtake the box, but the mating pair of bluebirds kept them at bay. I’d read about ‘sparrow spookers‘ and added a makeshift one (with gold and blue sparkle ribbon) to the top of the rickety green birdhouse when I thought eggs had been laid (I couldn’t peek inside due to the small opening at the back of the nesting box). My craft project worked well enough because the bluebirds didn’t mind it, yet it kept other nuisance birds away.

Mom removing a fecal sack from the nest shortly after chicks hatched.

By early June, a successful clutch of baby blues hatched and was well cared for by their dedicated parents. I checked on them daily — there were at least three chicks, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were four based on the activity in their box. (The photo above shows the female removing a fecal sack from the box – this happened all day long and is akin to changing diapers on a newborn baby.)

Over the course of over two weeks, the chicks grew bigger and louder. The parents were busy all day long with feedings and endless of ‘diaper changes’. I credit the our dedication over the years of removing pesticides and herbicides from the garden for their survival. There were plenty of grasshoppers and various worms and other bugs to easily catch throughout the garden.

My biggest concern during the nestling stage was the neighborhood cat whom was a constant threat as the pair foraged on the ground for insects. The blue jays concerned me as much as the cat, because a few years ago, I saw them go after baby sparrows in the birdhouses (they take baby sparrows from the house and eat them – it’s horrifying to watch!) What I found fascinating was the protective role of the mockingbirds, who also took up residence in my garden this past summer. They were like the aunts and uncles who scared off predators while the bluebird parents were away from their box. I’ve looked for information about how other bird species protect one another (or not!) but couldn’t find information about the relationship between bluebirds and mockingbirds. (If you have insight, please let me know via a comment to this story.)

This is the first photo of the new chicks in June. And yes, I worried about the condition of the rickety nesting box.

By the end of June, the babies were very loud and active and while they became used to me going up to peek in on them, I stayed back as much as my curiosity would allow knowing that I didn’t want their parents getting too upset with me. The feedings were more and more frequent to build their strength, with both the mother and father sharing the dinner (breakfast and lunch, too!) duties.

Dinner Time! This is the my favorite shot of the 2020 gardening season.

The baby blues were finally ready to leave their little old house during as we approached July 4th — it gave a whole new meaning to Independence Day in 2020. I captured the next photo on June 30th, with a strong feeling they’d be taking their first flights the next morning. Doesn’t this one look ready to take on the world?

This little little chick’s last night at home in 2020. Ready for its own Independence Day.

The next morning – July 1st, I could see a lot of activity from my home office window at the nest box and noticed something fall out. I shot out the door and within a few minutes, the neighborhood cat came to visit, so he was quickly put into my garage for about an hour. After spotting the first free bird on the fence nearby, I found a second one a few minutes later under a winterberry bush, next to an old bicycle in the back of the garden. Within an hour, they were all out of their rickety old, copper-roofed birdhouse that ended up giving them an excellent start to their new lives. For a few days, I’d see three chicks in the trees and shrubs around my garden. Always with one of the parents nearby.

This Baby Blue was the first to fly the coop. I’m sure it’s the one I photographed the night before.
Right after finding its sibling on the fence, this fluffball was found nearby in the back of the garden.

As the next few weeks passed, I saw my blue buddies less and less. Then, unfortunately, by the end of July, about a month after these baby blues headed out into the world, a deceased male adult bluebird was found at the end of my driveway near the road. There were no visible injuries, so it’s assumed it may have hit a car windshield as it took its typical flight path from across the street to one of my garden birdbaths (but honestly, my first thoughts were of the neighborhood garden cat!) We’ll never know for sure.

There was a sudden sense of sadness, but it was outweighed by the realization that the arrival and survival of Eastern Bluebirds in the garden in 2020 was truly a success — and even now, as we look at more time at home in the coming months, their company was meant to be.

All bluebirders must feel like “one of the chosen ones” when we are fortunate enough to have nesting bluebirds on our own property…”

~Lillian Lund


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2020 Started with the Birds and Ends with the Bees

Each gardening season, I ‘discover’ something new – and usually very exciting (at least to me!) – about our backyard garden habitat. Over the past few years, I’ve spent time getting to really know ‘my’ Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds, Cedar Waxwings, and American Gold Finches. Initially, 2020 appeared to be on track to be the year of ‘my Bluebirds‘.

My Eastern Bluebird pair watching over their nesting box in early 2020 to bring food to their tiny nestlings.

While the Bluebirds were such a gift of hope this past spring – they started a new family of at least three little ones that fledged in late June – the reality of the 2020 garden turned out to be all about ‘my bees’. While not necessarily a new discovery this year, the sheer number and variety of ‘bees’ in the garden has been interesting, and on some days, even a bit exciting. Perhaps so much extra time in the garden in 2020 just provided the opportunity to become more observant, appreciative, and aware of the creatures keeping me company outside. Even as late as Christmas Day this year – when we had unusual warmth for a few days – I saw and heard bees in my New Hampshire garden — they were especially interested in the holly and the faded enkianthus tree.

Let’s get this out of the way before I continue. I am not an ‘apiarist’ aka: bee expert. I became fascinated with bees after reading Sue Monk Kidd’s ‘The Secret Life of Bees’ almost 20 years ago. That book inspired me to learn more about beekeeping, but my career in the tech industry was a higher priority back then…and I knew I just couldn’t make a living by selling honey in New Hampshire for a few months a year.

Over the years since, I’ve chatted with beekeepers and while I continue to be fascinated by these beautiful and important creatures that are detrimental to our own survival, I’ve still not pursued hive-tending or honey-gathering. Instead I’ve targeted my focus on ensuring a better environment for the bees that reside in our garden. It’s a focus that both my mom and I have become committed to in our shared garden, especially over the past decade. It’s one small way to have a personal and positive impact to address climate change.

I have friends and neighbors who are afraid of bees and when they complain to me about them, I always think about this passage from ‘The Secret Life of Bees’. It still stands out in my mind, two decades after first reading it.

I hadn’t been out to the hives before, so to start off she gave me a lesson in what she called ‘bee yard etiquette’. She reminded me that the world was really one bee yard, and the same rules work fine in both places. Don’t be afraid, as no life-loving bee wants to sting you. Still, don’t be an idiot; wear long sleeves and pants. Don’t swat. Don’t even think about swatting. If you feel angry, whistle. Anger agitates while whistling melts a bee’s temper. Act like you know what you’re doing, even if you don’t. Above all, send the bees love. Every little thing wants to be loved.”

The Secret Life of Bees

The last two sentences from that passage are key. Specifically, “Send the bees love.” I whisper to the bees while I garden (and I no longer care what my neighbors think if they hear me!) Especially in mid to late summer, I thank the bees for their hard work to keep my garden blooming all season. I also thank them for not stinging me!

Enjoying the Autumn Joy Sedum in September. My mobile phone camera captured detail that’s hard to see with the naked eye.

I believe the bees feel my love when I check on their well-being. On some August mornings when they are motionless, especially in my zinnias, I offer a very gentle nudge and soft hello (yes, I pat the bees like I would cat or a dog!) Every single time, they move just a bit, as if to ask me for just a little more time to rest. They certainly deserve it, so I quietly walk away and wish them a good day (with a sense of relief after seeing life). The bee in this zinnia seemed to actually roll over upon being roused when I gave it a little pat. It was just fine. Perhaps only a little overworked from a busy morning of pollinating!

A little nap on an August zinnia.

The only other times I will touch bees is when they get swept into the deep end of our many birdbaths found throughout the garden. Like all living things, bees need water. In my garden, bees can often be found around the perimeter of the birdbaths, especially after they’ve been refreshed with clean water each morning. This summer, I pulled more bees (honeybees and bumblebees) and their cousins (yellow jackets and wasps) out of their giant watering holes when I’ve seen them struggle to escape. I gently scoop them up with my hands (or a small stick for yellow jackets) and place them on the rocks or soft ground in nearby shade to dry off. Every single time, they’ve flown away a few minutes after regaining their composure. (And of course, the wasps and yellow jackets deserve a little love and to be saved, too.)

An important similarity among all of these creatures is they provide an important service to benefit our environment — they are pollinators. They do so much more than gift us with sweet honey. Without pollination, our backyard gardens wouldn’t produce tomatoes, squash, or even the beautiful berries on our shrubs, like holly. And, did you know one third of all agricultural output in the United States depends on pollinators? The produce department at your local market would be empty if it were not for bees.

While we may read about bees pollinating flowers, we don’t often get the chance to see this process up close. Again, the extra time in my garden afforded me the opportunity in 2020 to capture why we need to better care for our bees — the amount of pollen they carry from flower to flower is nothing short of amazing. Just flying with such a heavy load looks painfully difficult when you get a look up close. These bees, fully enthralled in the pollination process of the Rudbeckia and Rose of Sharon made me think of Bess, from Porgy & Bess, and the reference to ‘Happy Dust’ in the play. (I took all of these photos with my mobile phone camera – so please ask permission before you use them for your own posts.)

So, how can you take better care of bees to ensure we all have the pollinators needed to keep our world alive? Again, I’m not an apiarist, but I do have five suggestions based on the success of expanding the bee and overall pollinator population in our own New Hampshire garden. These suggestions are ideal for any where you may garden and want to better support your own pollinators.

  1. Ditch the insecticides! If you kill the bees (aka: insects), you’re basically killing your overall environment. This was especially realized as we reduced the footprint of lawn in our garden over the past decade. Over the years, instead of replacing lawn that just couldn’t thrive without fertilizer, herbicide, and insecticide products, we filled in ‘bald’ spaces of lawn with white clover. While clover does well, and the cottontail rabbits love it, so instead of planting more, we’ve been adding thyme – the creeping perennial variety to create a beautiful lush lawn. It has a wonderful fragrance and colorful flowers. And best of all, the bees, as well as the birds absolutely love it!
  2. Learn to love your spring dandelions. When you stop using herbicides, you’ll find more dandelions in your spring garden. This is perfect to bring in the bees. It’s the first flower of the spring season and much needed for the nutrition of bees. I have a friend who is an avid gardener, too. Until this past year, Steve has had a natural tendency to pull up the new dandelions. For a few years, when he’d visit our garden, the impulse continued, until I shared that we intentionally keep these bright yellow flowers for the bees. It was a big ‘ah-ha!’ to Steve and now, he points out to me that he also has learned to love the dandelions — because like me, he loves the bees.
  3. Plant native perennials. Get to know your garden zone and find native perennials to plant. A Google search of native perennials and your location will give you a whole list of options. And it’s ok to change things up over time. Changing our lawn from grass to sod and back to grass, then to clover and now thyme has taken almost a decade. We still filled in areas this past autumn and I can’t wait to see how it all takes in for the 2021 gardening season.
  4. Plant colorful annuals. While our garden is mostly perennials, my favorite summer annual flowers are zinnias. They are often overlooked and I don’t understand why. They are bright and colorful. They grow in a variety sizes and thrive in all types of garden conditions but especially LOVE full sun. And they attract the most beautiful pollinators – including bees and butterflies. I’ll never not have zinnias in my garden now. In fact, I save the seed heads from my favorite flowers each autumn to plant year after year. It you’re not a gardener, like I’m not a bee expert, you will surprise yourself with zinnias and become hooked. (I promise!) Check out Renee’s Garden Seeds to get started. I absolutely love their annual seeds – in addition to zinnias, they have special seed mixes especially to attract bees. I tried the Beekeepers Mix and it’s beautiful!
  5. Make your garden hospitable to bees! Once you cover items 1-4, be sure to add water features to your garden. Even a birdbath helps. There are also ways to set up watering stations for bees, with shallow areas of water and rocks. Also, at the end of the gardening season, save some of your leaf pickup and pruning until spring. Give the bees a place to take cover in the winter. Another option is to check with local beekeepers in your area. If your garden is hospitable for bees, you may even be able to ‘rent’ a hive for your garden that is tended to by a professional. (This is something I’ve been thinking about for a few years now.)

I hope you’re a little more inspired now to believe in your bees as we look ahead to 2021. What’s not to love? They keep our gardens, our souls, and even our world alive. It’s time for all of us to make sure we give them a chance — which ultimately gives all of us a chance. Enjoy these additional photos of bees from my 2020 garden.

“The hum of bees is the voice of the garden.”

~Elizabeth Lawrence


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Finding Church in the Garden

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!)

The Lavender Gimlet is made with 2 oz botanical gin (Hendricks or Botanist), 1/2 oz fresh lime juice and 1/2 oz of Lavender Simple Syrup. Shake well and serve with fresh Lavender.

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.


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Blues that Bring Happiness

Time spent in the garden is absolutely soul-saving right now.

The truth is – quiet time in the garden is always shared with whatever Mother Nature decides to offer during any given moment on any given day. In recent weeks, we’ve had so many songbirds visit. There’s no need for music in the garden now because the bird orchestra has center stage.

The resident mocking bird starts the sunrise chorus as he calls for his mate each morning (earlier and early each day, in fact!). We also have the American Robins, Cedar Waxwings, Black Capped Chickadees, American Golden Finches, as well as the Red Winged Blackbirds, Mourning Doves, and of course a variety of sparrows.

And this year – – – we have the BLUES. The Eastern Bluebirds — the kind of blues that bring happiness and optimism.

I’ve become obsessed with these magical creatures. I thought that I’d seen them from time to time this winter while they enjoyed the holly berries outside my home office window this winter. But, honestly, I wasn’t sure they were even bluebirds since we’ve never had any nearby. On April 3, the third week our “Stay Home” order due to the Corona virus (we’re in week seven now), as I gazed out my window, I discovered a pair of bluebirds was investigating the various bird houses in my garden. None of them bluebird nest boxes, by the way.

To say this discovery was a surprise is an understatement. It’s become the biggest news coming from our garden this year – maybe this decade! About 10 years ago, I’d put out an official bluebird nesting box, along with meal worms. I even followed all the various instructions to attract them. As one of the National Wildlife Federation’s certified wildlife habitats, our garden has food (via the various native berries), water, shelter, and a place to raise their young. It was disappointing that after many years of seeking out bluebirds, the wrens and house sparrows always arrived first and took over the various nesting box and house options. After a squirrel ruined the lone bluebird box, I removed it and just appreciated ALL the other birds (cardinals, wrens, mockingbirds, hummingbirds) that instead make their homes in our garden.

Just as happiness is often elusive when you’re constantly searching for it, same goes for the beautiful bluebird. While overall home confinement because of the Covid-19 pandemic has been stressful for so many people, I’ve enjoyed the arrival of the bluebirds during this time. Having extra time to watch them through windows while inside the house and when I’m outside in the garden has been very therapeutic. Thankfully, if we must spend more time than ever at home in 2020 in New Hampshire, it’s been as the seasons changed from winter to spring.

I first spotted the bright blue male in backyard (these are my first two photos captured while leaning out of my office window). Minutes later, the female arrived – she’s also blue, but her head is grey (she’s in the photo on the right). April 3 was a cold, rainy afternoon, and this pair was exploring the area that had been raked a few days earlier, finding all the goodies an organic garden has to offer. I know many people tell us not to ‘name’ wildlife, but I just couldn’t help myself. I now call the male ‘Irving’ and the female ‘Ella’ – yes, in honor Irving Berlin’s 1926 hit song by Ella Fitzgerald – Blue Skies.

After my confirmed early April sighting, I became obsessed! I needed to brush up on my bluebird knowledge (we have the Eastern Bluebird in our region) AND hopefully capture some good photographs of these little beauties.

Bluebirds really need our help. They are one of few songbirds native to the North America and they almost became extinct in the early 1900s due to pesticides and the introduction of invasive European bird species that compete for the same nesting cavities. These competitors include House Sparrows. This is what makes the arrival of the bluebirds in my garden so surprising. While we have a wide variety of birds, for years the majority of them have been various sparrow types. They dine at the feeders I keep filled through the winter and often take over any space they think will make a good home for their offspring.

The good news is that we have reached four full weeks since the bluebirds arrived and they seem to be holding their own against the sparrows and other bird box/house interlopers. Ella chose the green house with the copper roof near the Japanese Fantail Weeping Pussy Willow after inspecting other accommodations in the area – including the older yellow house that had once been home to Carolina Wrens.

I am noticing fewer sparrows than ever this spring. I think that because our neighborhood had a lot of old trees removed last fall by the local power company. The sparrows are still here though and honestly, their hostility is the most difficult aspect of the bluebirds’ arrival. Last week was the worst of nature I’ve seen in the garden. There were vicious fights and the male bluebird was valiant in his defense of his territory.

After looking at ways to help, I put a ‘Sparrow Spooker‘ over the house that the bluebirds chose. That seems to be keeping the sparrows away. It’s simply a dowel attached to the back of the nest box that has streamers of tin foil hanging and gently brushing the roof of the box.

The bluebirds aren’t bothered by it at all – but the sparrows are… well…spooked by this homemade contraption. So that’s good news. I’m hoping that our luck of scared sparrows continues, because I’m horrified at the advice from members of the bluebird community (Kill the ‘ghost eggs’ and/or euthanize the chicks if they take over the nest!). While I understand their rationale, I still find that action hard to accept and actually implement.

Aside from putting up a the ‘Sparrow Spooker’, I’ve been letting nature just take her course in the garden. I occasionally see the bluebirds stop by the feeders – enjoying sunflower hearts and suet. (While I had plenty of suet on hand, I did splurge and purchased a few cakes with meal worms and nuts last week!) There’s a birdbath relatively close by and the bluebirds have claimed it as their own right after a late day pool party hosted by a flock of Cedar Waxwings passing through two weeks ago.

So, now that Ella and Irving have their master suite set up in our garden, we wait for the Baby Blues. I know I should check on the eggs, but I can’t because they chose a ‘house’ with a tiny back opening and I don’t want to disturb it. The good news is that Ella is in there constantly sitting on the nest. While she does that, you can often find Irving going out for a drink. (He’s also very good at delivery of takeout meals he brings back to her in the nest.)

Of all the birds I’ve seen nest on our garden, the bluebirds seem to work the hardest. They care constantly taking care of each other and their ‘home’, collecting food and chasing off predators. Based on the timing of their arrival and the assumption of when the eggs were laid based on Ella’s behavior, we expect the eggs to hatch a few days after Mother’s Day.

Given the state of the world today, where it’s even difficult to go out to shop for a Mother’s Day card or present, I think Mother Nature has out done herself by delivering the bluebirds to our garden in 2020. While I’m not counting the eggs before they hatch, I am filled with gratitude for this unexpected gift that has brought so much optimism, happiness, and hopeful anticipation during such a sad time in our world today.

“Bluebirds singing a song, nothing but bluebirds all day long.” ~Irving Berlin


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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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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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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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A Gardener’s Thoughts on this US Election Day

Voting is like gardening.
You need a plan.

Know which seeds to sow.
Boldly remove weeds that are invasive.
Remember that too much fertilizer (BS) does more harm than good.

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Image is a photograph from a card I received this summer. It was created by an artist named Sally Apfelbaum – Language of Flowers series.


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Gifts from the Garden

One of my favorite things about being a gardener is being able to share this hobby with friends. Whether it be offering results of a successful harvest, sharing plant cuttings and divisions, or other items from the garden, I feel that such ‘treasures’ or gifts from the garden are much more personal and heartfelt than anything that can be bought in a store.

Over the past few years, I’ve spent a lot of time documenting the flowers and visitors (mostly birds and insects) to our garden through my photography. The more I practice with my camera, the more I realize that the lens is a good way to share how I see and experience Mother Nature. Having the camera in my hand also makes me slow down to look for things that I normally would notice – for example, the fuzziness of a bumblebee.

Last year, I sifted through hundreds of images to create a package of note cards to share our garden in a new way with some of my friends. As far as I can tell, they were appreciated and I’m starting to get comments (and not so subtle hints) about certain images I’ve shared on social media in 2018 that could be good candidates for my next batch of cards. (I’m both flattered and a little intimidated by this feedback!)

 

The photos took hours to pull together – after all, it was hard to find just a few favorites. I also added quotes to the back of each card to correspond with the photo. Here are a few examples:

 

Finding appropriate quotes definitely took more time, but was a fun research project. Especially when looking for good thoughts about dragonflies – I was surprised that there really aren’t any inspirational quotes about this beautiful insect, so I’m always looking for new ones – feel free to leave a comment on this post to share your favorites with me.

With the 2018 holiday season quickly approaching, I’m thinking about doing another set for this year, but plan to focus on a theme – such as hummingbirds. I’m confident that I’ve successfully captured some unique shots of these favorite summer residents during 2018. The other option is butterflies – though, I could include both and have a “Winged Things” theme.

In addition to note cards, I’ve also created other treasures from my garden, but they aren’t always for everyone. Sage and rosemary smudge sticks have come in handy as fun gifts to share, especially for friends who need to cleanse their aura. Here’s one of the giant sage sticks I made last year – not fancy but it serves its purpose and put all that sage to good use. (I was surprised to see that it burns quite slowly, like incense.)

 

My big garden gift trial was in 2016 when I created homemade patchouli oil two years ago. I consider this a half success because it takes a long time for the fragrance of the patchouli to cure, so initially, the oil didn’t have the fragrance I was expecting.

When I first created it, the fragrance smelled more green and grassy than the deep ‘hippie’ fragrance one expects from patchouli. Given this and the time and cost involved to buy the right oil, bottles, and to make the labels, this was a one time project. (I still  have a few bottles left over – and it smells better than every…finally! I never realized so few people appreciate the fragrance of patchouli – more often than not, I was offered a “thanks but no thanks” when offering this garden gift.)

So, those are the three garden gifts I’ve created in recent years – note cards, dried herbs, and scented oil. Some people have suggested calendars or framed photos, but I see those items as less personal. When I create a garden gift, I put part of myself into it. How do you give a piece of yourself to others through your garden?

“You give but little when you give of your possessions.

  It is when you give of yourself that you truly give.” 

~Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet