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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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


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3 Simple Things You Must Do to Attract Hummingbirds to Your Garden

While there are so many things I love about time in the garden each summer, the daily ritual we call “Hummingbird Watch” is my favorite. During this 90 minute period, just before the sun sets from late April until early September, the hummingbirds – all ruby-throated in southern NH – can be seen flitting from feeder-to-feeder and flower-to-flower — and sometimes even from gnat-to-gnat — across my garden.

I’ve never met a person who isn’t delighted to have these tiny creatures visit and take up residence in their gardens. But interestingly, even the most savvy nature lovers I know often wonder how to continuously attract hummingbirds to their outdoor sanctuaries.

There’s a lot of information online about techniques, tips, and tricks to draw more hummingbird visitors to your garden or yard. However, I’ve found that some important details are often omitted behind the headlines that offer advice for attracting and keeping hummingbirds nearby. Here are three proven tips I’m sharing from my own experience that will hopefully set you up to start your own Hummingbird Watch Ritual.

1. Keep Your Hummingbird Feeders Clean – ALWAYS!

blog-feeder-male

A male Ruby-Throated Hummingbird visits one of our garden feeders in early spring.

In mid-May, when I ask my neighbors and friends how many hummingbirds they’ve seen since putting up their feeders, they often tell me that they haven’t seen any at all. They sometimes even blame me for keeping them in my garden (which is not a valid argument for their lack of visitors!)

The first questions I ask are, “How often do you change the food, and what are you using in your feeder?”

The response is almost always that the feeder has had ‘food’ in it for weeks, or even months and is never emptied. So, that’s a BIG RED FLAG as to problem number one. The best advice I can provide is to keep your feeders clean – which means emptying them, cleaning them, and refilling them with fresh nectar aka: sugar water at least weekly – twice a week during heatwaves in mid-summer.

If your sugar water is cloudy – that’s a hint that you’re overdue to change the food. Same thing if you see black particles or scum floating in the water. That’s mold and fungus and can poison the hummingbirds that visit your feeder. I’ve found when I clean my feeders (with a few drops of Dawn dish soap) every five to six days, there is less buildup of mold in the feeder.

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If I see any, I use a diluted bleach solution and small brushes to clean my feeders thoroughly. (The other incentive to keeping them clean weekly, is that it’s a lot less work, and sometimes a quick rinse of hot water is all that’s needed.)

2. Create Your Own Sugar Water for Feeders – And Skip the Red Dye

What are you feeding your hummingbirds? Are you buying packaged mixes from the store? Or do you make your own nectar? To save money and provide food with no chemicals, start making your own fresh sugar water with basic white sugar – sucrose. When mixed with water, it most closely resembles the natural nectar that hummingbirds get from flowers. Don’t use honey because it will promote fungal growth. And stay away from raw or organic sugar as it contains a higher amount of iron that can harm your little visitors.

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At first glance, this appears to be a female hummingbird. Look closely for the speck of red plumage on the neck. This is juvenile male Ruby-Throated during a late summer feeder visit.

The Audubon Society instructions advise using 1 part sugar (plain, white sugar) to 4 parts water to feed hummingbirds – and no red food dye. Boil the mixture until the sugar dissolves. Then let cool before filling your feeders.

Since I fill several feeders, I use 1 cup sugar to 4 cups water. During early spring, when the hummingbirds first arrive and late summer and as they fuel up for their mid-September trips back to Mexico and Central America, I make the mix just a little sweeter/stronger and cut back on the water by about a half cup. I have a friend who uses a much stronger mix, but have read that this isn’t good because too much sugar can damage the liver of hummingbirds.

If you make extra sugar water, you can refrigerate it for about a week. This will save you time as you fill your feeders weekly – even more so when experiencing heatwaves that will require more frequent food changes.

Finally, I keep my feeders up until the end of September. While most of the hummingbirds who visited all summer leave by September 10, we get stragglers from up north as they join the annual migration. It’s fun and honestly, a little bit rewarding to see an occasional visitor stop by to fuel up on sugar water and nectar from late blooming zinnias through September 30.

3. Plan Your Garden to Attract Hummingbirds – They Love Red & Pink

The gardens at our house are primarily well-established perennial gardens. They’ve always attracted hummingbirds, but after putting a little extra thought into new plantings (all gardeners add new plants to their gardens every year, right?), we always think about what will attract hummingbirds and other pollinators, including bees and butterflies.

While there are three feeders across the garden, I look at them as supplemental to the flowers that are planted to provide a continuous bloom for our enjoyment – and food for the hummingbirds throughout the summer. This not only makes the garden look beautiful throughout the summer, but it’s also one of the best ways to keep hummingbirds coming back to visit. Did you know that hummingbirds eat as much as half of their weight every day – and feed five to six times per hour?

Over the past few years, I’ve learned to pay attention to what flowers and trees the hummingbirds like to visit for their feedings and for resting. One of the resting areas that I know to look up to is the very top of the Weeping Cherry tree in the back garden. When I see one up there, I know that there are at least three more in the nearby flowers.

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Lookout Point at the top of the Weeping Cherry tree. A sign if the hummingbirds are active.

Add These Flowers to Your Garden and Attract More Hummingbirds

The past two summers, I’ve kept my camera with me while in the garden, especially during the daily hummingbird watch ritual I mentioned earlier.

While I’ve caught great shots of these incredible creatures at the feeders, I’ve wanted more ‘natural’ photos of them visiting the flowers in our garden. (I post many of these on my Instagram page, also called Garden with Grace).

Here are some of my favorite new shots of the hummingbirds enjoying the flowers in our gardens over the past year. You may be inspired to add some of these to your own landscape. Keep in mind to plant flowers for your specific zone. We are in zone 5B in Nashua, NH. So you may or may not have success with all of these.

In addition to the photos captured here – other flowers the hummingbirds visit include Purple Siberian Iris and Purple Lilac in the spring. And Zinnias! They love the secret zinnia beds scattered across the back gardens. Zinnias are annual flowers, but I keep the seed heads each autumn to start next year’s garden. If there’s not a butterfly flitting among the zinnias, you can usually find a hummingbird. (I’m hoping to catch that photo next summer! – UPDATE- On September 21, I captured a good photo that includes a zinnia and have added it to the end of this post.)

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Cardinal Flower aka: Lobelia Cardinalis

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Lucifer Flower, aka: Sword Flower, aka: Crocosmia. This is new this year and big hit!

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Lucifer Flower, aka: Sword Flower, aka: Crocosmia. This is new this year and big hit!

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Here’s another of the Lucifer Flower, with St Francis (Patron Saint of Animals)

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One of the few annual flowers – Fuschia. This always attracts the hummingbirds late summer.

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My first and all-time favorite action shot of a hummingbird above a trellis of Alabama Crimson Honeysuckle on a clear, cloudless late summer afternoon.

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Alabama Crimson Honeysuckle. Resting on a leaf while enjoying sweet nectar.

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Looks closely to see this bird’s tongue sample the new buds of the Endless Summer Hydrangea.

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I finally captured a photo of a hummingbird visiting a zinnia in my garden on Sept 21 – well after I assumed they left for the season.

“May my faith always be
at the end of the day
like a hummingbird…returning
to its favorite flower.”
~Sanober Khan, Turquoise Silence

The photos in this post were all taken in my garden in the summers of 2017 and 2018 and belong to the owner of this post. If you’d like to use any of these photos, please request permission via a comment on this post.


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Digging Deep into the Science of Gardening

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:

Gene Harrington, owner of the Nashua Farmers Exchange;

Cameron Bonsey, executive with the Coast of Maine Organics (he traveled from Portland, Maine to join us!);

Isabelle Burke, an expert gardener with the Merrimack Garden Club and beekeeper who represented the Merrimack Valley Beekeepers Association;

Dave McConville, a permaculture designer and educator with GrowNashua;  and

Paul Shea, the executive director of our Great American Downtown who also happens to be a “Master Gardener” certified by the UNH Cooperative Extension.

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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.” 

~Janet Kilburn Phillips


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Dig, Shake, Stir: From Garden to Bar

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.)

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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.

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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.

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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!)