It’s been over a year since my last garden post. And, while I have about a dozen stories in draft form in my head, I’ve had too many distractions to actually sit down to write. Thankfully, the bluebirds have returned for the third consecutive year. And another spring has sprung in New England.
This year’s season of renewal also marks a year since the sudden passing of my mother. I’d shared many stories about gardening with her over the past decade and while she disliked attention, she loved reading my Garden with Grace blog. She was especially touched with a post I wrote at the end of the summer of 2020, Finding Church in the Garden. I’m so glad I wrote that story while mom was still here. It’s a reminder to pay tribute to the living.
Over the past 12 months, I’ve been fortunate to have my garden as a place to experience and work through my grief. It was a feeling I’d never experienced before and is difficult to put into words. There’s a saying that “grief is love with no place to go.” While I somewhat understand that, it recently hit me that my grief went right where it needed to go – back into the garden.
Just one year ago, during the spring of 2021, there was still a lot of isolation due to Covid-19 . Vaccines were just starting and people weren’t yet gathering together in groups. A mild spring was a huge relief as it allowed me to have friends visit in the garden. This was very much needed since there were no formal services after my mother’s death.
One of those visits was on a cold afternoon just before Memorial Day weekend. My friends Marjorie, Elise, and Liz came over for a ‘garden tour’ and Friday afternoon cocktails on The Porch. It was Elise’s first visit to my garden and she really took interest in my focus to remove a manicured lawn and create a welcoming space for wildlife and pollinators.
Elise is one of those friends whom I haven’t known for long, and don’t see often, however, we have a connection to one another through a shared network of wonderful people across our community. She is the reason I finally have a new blog post this evening.
A few weeks ago, she asked if she could create a video using photos from my Garden with GraceInstagram account. Elise is the music director at a local church and wanted the video as a project to celebrate spring. I was honored to be asked to participate. On Earth Day 2022, Elise and I chatted via a recorded Zoom call for over an hour.
Rather than tell you what we discussed, you are invited to listen and watch for a 7 minute recap of our hour+ conversation. I hope you enjoy Elise’s work as much as I do!
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.
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 favors by letting them nest there and that I must watch for and kill any sparrows that might take over the nest, 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 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.
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 two weeks, the chicks grew bigger and louder. The parents were busy all day long with feedings and endless ‘diaper changes’. I credit 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.)
By the end of June, the babies were very loud and active and while they became used to me peeking 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, lunch, and snacks, too!) duties.
The baby blues were finally ready to leave their little old house during as July 4th approached — 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?
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 ran 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.
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…”
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
Like you, many things I’ve been looking forward to in the coming weeks have been cancelled or postponed. (September is starting to look quite full already with galas, concerts, and other rescheduled events.)
One thing that can’t be cancelled or postponed is the cycle of nature. Say it out loud, “Spring is not cancelled.”
Tulips, hyacinths, and daffodils are breaking through the soil. Trees and shrubs have a tinge of green. And, according to tracking websites, the ruby-throated hummingbirds are heading north.
More so than ever this year, I look forward to putting out my hummingbird feeders four weeks from today. I can’t wait to welcome my hummingbird friends back to my garden in 2020.
What spring rituals are you anticipating more than ever right now?
No matter how long the winter, spring is sure to follow. ~Proverb
It’s been a cool, rainy spring in southern New Hampshire. The perennial garden is lush and green. The annuals, including the tomatoes and zinnias are are showing quick signs of life and the weeds…..well….they are EVERYWHERE!
A few years ago, the mulched paths throughout our gardens were replaced with stone – a combination of pea stone, blue stone, and crushed rock. The goal at the time was to reduce the overall costs and time associated with mulching and weeding. Replacing mulch made from organic matter that breaks down – with various types of stone that lasts forever – added new interest to the landscape and made weed control (a little) easier.
One of the biggest challenges with these paths is weed prevention. And when that’s neglected, actual weed removal is an even bigger headache. The wet spring resulted in fewer days working in the garden during May and early June, resulting in a sudden explosion of weed seedlings throughout the stone paths. (You can see the growth in the pea stone path between the two garden areas below.)
Rather than spend hours picking through the stone to remove each tiny weed at the root, only to see them return in a few weeks, I researched some easier options or what I call ‘garden hacks’. In the past, Round-Up was used sparingly – before we knew how bad it is. We’ve also used vinegar, both straight and diluted, as well as boiling water. Truth be told, the vinegar option in the past worked, but weeds always returned.
After a little online research – as well as anecdotal conversations with friends who have tried various techniques to kill weeds, I found a vinegar-based recipe to spray on the weeds that expanded on the previous somewhat success of using vinegar. This recipe includes the use of table salt (1c) and Dawn dish detergent (1tbs) with household vinegar (1gal). The vinegar and sodium kill the weeds by dehydrating the weed, interrupting its internal cell structure. The detergent acts as a surfactant to ensure the vinegar and salt stick to the weeds. An important note here is that this mixture should only be used where you don’t want ANYTHING to grow. The salt, specifically, can wreak havoc with the structure of your soil. This is why I tried this solution to only on the rock pathways.
It WORKS….FAST! I used a watering can (special one set aside for projects like this so I it’s not mistakenly used for other purposes in the garden) and after a few days, went through over 25 gallons of vinegar and 25 cups of salt! The photo here was the first 17 gallons – the Nashua city workers who do our recycle pickup must be wondering what’s going on at my house! I’ve now found generic household vinegar and salt to use to save a little money – but continue to use Dawn.
Within an hour, the weeds – big and small started to disintegrate. Within a day, they were pretty much all together gone. They shriveling up to almost nothing and apparently blew away.
The majority of the time to complete this weeding project was spent stirring the salt to make sure it dissolved in the vinegar. It’s also important to gently stir in the Dawn at the end to avoid creating suds.
It’s been almost three weeks since I’ve ‘pickled’ the weeds in my garden paths. And so far, none have returned. I believe this is a simple, safe, inexpensive, and fast solution when used in the proper areas of your garden. The only drawback is the entire garden reeks of vinegar and salt for a day or two. (Be forwarded – you may start to crave pickles or salt & vinegar potato chips when you pickle your weeds.)
IMPORTANT NOTE: Of course, nothing is fool-proof. Two years ago, I shared thoughts about weeding the thyme that grows in the blue stone paths in my garden. Since I do want the thyme to grow in this area, the ‘pickling’ solution is not appropriate for this part of the garden. The only way to ensure I don’t have a followup to that earlier weeding sob story is a commitment to due-diligence now to pull the weeds in the thyme path as they pop up. Since I take a daily walk thru the garden, this is simple and effective, especially when I use my handy-dandy CobraHead mini weeder.
“I always think of my sins when I weed. They grow apace in the same way and are harder still to get rid of.”
~Helena Rutherfurd Ely, A Woman’s Hardy Garden, 1903
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.)
Cardinal Flower aka: Lobelia Cardinalis
Lucifer Flower, aka: Sword Flower, aka: Crocosmia. This is new this year and big hit!
Lucifer Flower, aka: Sword Flower, aka: Crocosmia. This is new this year and big hit!
Here’s another of the Lucifer Flower, with St Francis (Patron Saint of Animals)
One of the few annual flowers – Fuschia. This always attracts the hummingbirds late summer.
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.
Alabama Crimson Honeysuckle. Resting on a leaf while enjoying sweet nectar.
Looks closely to see this bird’s tongue sample the new buds of the Endless Summer Hydrangea.
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.
Once again, a calendar is not needed when paying attention to the garden. It’s been easy to know we’re in late July because it’s time to weed the thyme.
A few years ago, we replaced bark mulched paths in the garden with blue stone. The spaces between the blue stone are perfect for planting Creeping Thyme. It spreads between the spaces of the stones, emitting a soft herbal fragrance when people and pets walk along the paths.
In late May, the thyme produces flowers bringing the stone to life, adding extra color to the late spring garden and creating patterns of purple and green in the spaces where the stones almost meet. While we’ve planted various colors of thyme – purple, white, and hot pink over the years, the thyme with purple blossoms is the hardiest and has outlived other colors over the years. We’ve also learned that while Woolly Thyme adds texture and a lighter, almost silvery color among the blue stone, it doesn’t last as long as the regular creeping thyme.
The flowers on the thyme bloom from late May until early July in our Nashua, NH garden. It’s at that point on the calendar when the garden truly transitions from spring to summer. The purple and pink colors across the garden fade as the green, orange and red plants take over.
This year, the weeds have emerged during this transition period and have been more prolific than ever. We usually see this trend later in the summer, so attribute the abundance of midsummer weeds to the ‘extreme drought’ our region experienced in 2016. (Or perhaps I’m just noticing more weeds since attending a weeding seminar with Roger Swain at the Nashua Public Library earlier this year?!)
Over the 10 days, my mother and I have spent a combined 25+ hours weeding the various beds and paths throughout the garden. Her time out there beats mine by 2:1! The challenge has been the infiltration of weeds with the thyme. In addition to the typical crabgrass, it seems the ideal impostor weed has been the spotted spurge.
You see, it’s a flat weed that starts under the thyme plants. It spreads like thyme as well. The bigger challenge: As you walk along the garden paths, it’s not easy to see until suddenly it’s huge because it’s taken over the delicate thyme planted in that space. The single deep root sends shoots that spread up to a few feet in diameter. And, it seems to happen overnight. When it does, it’s difficult to remove just the weed, so inevitably, some sprigs of thyme are pulled in the mix.
Yes, there’s also white clover mixed in too, which is my fault. However, while some gardeners consider white clover to be a weed, it’s the latest solution to the Sad Sod Situation I’ve shared in the past. (I’ll save that story update for later – but here’s a sneak preview: The second planting of lawn two years ago died during the 2016 drought. It was decided we’d fill that area with white clover last fall and this spring, and the seed shaker helped scatter a little clover to a few paths where it wasn’t intended to grow.)
Even after hours and hours (and yes, more hours) of weeding through the thyme over the past week…sometimes feeling like I was wasting time…I must admit there’s something cathartic about the process of weeding. It allows me to get incredibly close to to the garden and forces me to slow down. It takes time to find the roots of weeds and fully remove them. Additionally, when working so close to the ground, it’s easier to notice soil conditions, pest issues, and beneficial garden creatures including dragonflies, toads, and worms.
That said, I’m thrilled the worst part of weeding thyme is behind us so we can spend the rest of the summer enjoying thyme!
The first two Hack’s led to so many wonderful conversations among friends. Especially popular is the Wine Cork Mulch hack! Now, whenever friends open a bottle of wine, they tell me they are ‘making mulch’ for my garden! I still need a few more corks for one project, but with the help of so many ‘mulch makers’ in my life, it should be finished soon!
With summer on our doorstep (we’re actually on day 2 of a 3-day heatwave in New England right now), I look around the garden and still see some fading foliage of the daffodils from early spring. In order to ‘charge’ the bulb for next year’s blooms, it’s necessary to keep the daffodil foliage after cutting the spent flowers. As the foliage starts to brown and wither away, it’s not the most attractive sight — but I’ve been using a solution that I read about a few years ago, and it works quite well!
In the fall, as the hosta falls apart after the first heavy freeze in New Hampshire, I’m usually preparing all the garden beds for their winter rest. By this time, gardening feels tiring – almost exhausting. But there’s always the final big push to plant spring bulbs. I just keep reminding myself that the extra effort to plant some tulips and daffodils will be rewarding come spring.
I can’t remember where I first read about this idea, but it’s one of my favorite Garden Hacks (after the Wine Cork Mulch!) When daffodils are planted among the hosta in late fall, you’ll save some time cutting back the withering foliage come June. The newly emerged hosta grows at a rate to completely camouflage the brown daffodil foliage, but doesn’t detract from the spring blooms. If anything, it enhances them, but bringing more color and depth to the the bare ground. I liken this to the work that florists do when they ‘green the vase’ before creating a flower arrangement.
This photo is from mid April of this year, just as the daffodils started to bloom. I love how the newly emerged hosta gives a bright green look of life to that entire garden bed.
The wonderful thing about this hack is the daffodils bloom for several weeks and just as they start to fade, the hosta really takes off to hide the fading flowers.
By early June, the hosta reaches it’s full size for the season, completely covering the daffodil foliage that is working hard to charge the bulbs for next year’s flowers.
Here’s a broader view of the garden from last week. You can see on the right, the arrows point to the section of the garden where the hosta is doing its magic trick of making the daffodils disappear!
For many, many years, my friends and I saved wine corks – always thinking of all the crafts we would create with them, including wreaths, trivets, tree ornaments. Those crafty days never really took shape (other than one or two wreaths), even though we always had the best of intentions.
After collecting hundreds (if not thousands!) of wine corks for nearly two decades, it was time to do something or to pass the corks on to someone who would. At the same time, a young paper bark maple tree was planted in the backyard. It needed mulch, but there’s an effort underway in my garden to cut back on bark mulch because it zaps nutrients from plants.
Hack #2: Wine Cork Mulch!
Suddenly, the idea of Wine Cork Mulch became a reality and good use for more than 25lbs of corks! I just place the corks where I’d normally put bark mulch. It worked out perfectly for the Paperbark Maple planted a few years ago, adding whimsy to a new garden focal point. After nearly three years, the natural corks weathered to a silver-grey, similar to how teak changes color over time. Yes, there are even some plastic corks mixed in – adding tiny splashes of yellow, blue, and dark purple. Occasionally, on a very windy or rainy day, a few corks may blow or bounce out of the bed, the same happens to bark mulch.
The success of this mulching project resulted in the continued collection of corks to mulch another bed across the garden.
This spring, we started to mulch the bed that leads to the secret zinnia garden behind the garage. Surely, this big bucket of corks would fill the space completely — or so we thought!
We were close. But definitely needed more corks to complete this project. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past few years is that it’s okay to ask for help. Friends love to help other friends, especially for interesting projects. When I realized more corks would be needed, I simply put out a call to my friends via social media on a Sunday afternoon to bring corks when they visit over the summer.
Within hours, my good friend and fellow gardener, Terri (aka: @TerriinRed on Twitter) stopped by, not with corks, but with unopened bottles of wine that included corks! A few days later, Liz came over after one of our Friday morning walks with a huge bag full of corks – well over 100 of them! (Liz was featured in one of my earlier Garden with Grace stories when we spent an evening in 2014 Gardening at the Gardener Museum in Boston.)
The cork mulch has definitely become a fun conversation among my friends in recent weeks, especially as more people drop by to contribute to what I call a ‘worthy cause!’ Most recently, Cathy dropped by to catch up after her vacation to Italy. She brought corks (and a few rocks from Tuscany – for my garden!)
Rosemarie brought over A LOT of corks a few days after Cathy. Like the start of this story, she also saved corks for years for craft projects. However, she did make some good attempts and many of the corks donated by Rosemarie have drill holes! (I love my friends!)
As you can see, I put Cathy and Rosemarie to work to help with the actual garden mulching. (Another benefit of cork mulch over bark mulch is that it’s not a dirty or buggy project!) Of course, both of these wonderful women were rewarded with a glass of wine!
I’m constantly finding corks in my pockets and purse now! After a visit to other friends’ homes for gatherings like Mother’s Day or an afternoon lunch, instead of bringing home a ‘doggy-bags’ with leftovers, I simply keep the corks, knowing one cork here and another there will add up fast.
A successful cork finding mission took place this week. During a stop for a drink at MTs Local Kitchen & Wine Bar in Downtown Nashua, a conversation was struck up with the bartender about my Wine Cork Mulching project.
I shared some of my photos and asked if MT’s kept their corks or just tossed them away. By the time I was ready to leave, I was offered a bag with 48 corks! All are now in my garden. My one regret is not counting ALL of the corks before putting them into the garden beds. (That knowledge would have sparked some interesting conversation when entertaining in the garden — of course with more wine to keep the cork beds full!)
It’s going to take a few more weeks to fill in all the gaps for the latest project, so I’ll keep on my mission to find more corks. And, if you happen to visit MT’s Local in Nashua, the cork from your glass or bottle of wine enjoyed with your dinner just may end up in my garden one day!
I think cork collecting may now be considered an ongoing adjunct hobby connected to a gardening obsession. I’ve already found a new bed to mulch with wine corks. I’m thinking the one with the Wine & Roses Weigela and Summer Wine Ninebark would be ideal!