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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Spring Awakening

It snowed again in southern New Hampshire over the weekend – about five inches of slushy, heavy snow. The wintry early April day brought a flock of seven Cedar Waxwings to the garden. When they weren’t stripping the few remaining red berries from the holly shrubs, they were huddled in the Weeping Cherry tree.

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Today, it’s sunny and 60 degrees (F) at 4pm. The longer days of sunshine are quickly melting the latest – and hopefully last – blanket of snow.

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While most of the paths in the garden are still white and slippery,  a swath of purple blooms caught my eye when I stepped onto my my front porch to get the mail.

Spring has arrived! The crocus are blooming — just as expected in early April.

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I grabbed my camera and walked through the areas of the garden where sun melted the snow from the stone paths.  (The ground in these few areas is very soft, almost muddy, so I didn’t venture far.)

It’s always a thrill to find the crocus in bloom. While expected, it always feels like the first flowers are a miracle.

The garden still has a brown dormant winter appearance – from the decaying leaves, pine needles, and sticks that will eventually be picked up either by the birds building their spring nests or during the initial hours of our annual spring cleanup gardening day.

No matter how sleepy the garden appears under the latest blanket of snow, Mother Nature does a spectacular job of waking the flowers that typically appear in late March thru early April.  This includes the crocus and scilla.  As soon as the purple crocus start to wind down, the bright scilla open to full bloom to bring new life and spectacular streaks of blue to line the garden paths. I don’t even need a calendar to know when Easter is just two weeks away.  Seeing these two spring flowers in bloom is always the first indication that the Easter Bunny is expected very soon. (And that it’s time to pick up the ingredients to make the traditional Pickled Beet Eggs for the pending holiday.)

While walking through the garden this afternoon, my soul filled with gratitude. Not just the sights of pops of bright color hear and there, but with the sounds of the songbirds who are out, searching for their spring mates.

I felt caught between two seasons – winter because of the snow cover. And, spring with with the early blooming bulbs.  I’d once read a quote about crocus that included the word Grace. That seems like the perfect way to end today’s story.

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“A single crocus blossom ought to be enough to convince our heart that springtime, no matter how predictable, is somehow a gift, gratuitous, gratis, a grace.”

-David Steindl-Rast


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Great Gardening Expectations

My Early Gardening Influences

Long before HGTV, the only Gardening program I remember on television was ‘The Victory Garden’ on PBS.

I learned so much in the 1990s from one of the show’s early hosts, Roger Swain. I always trusted his insight about growing vegetable gardens in New England.  I also learned just as much from ‘Chef Marian’ (Morash),  who shared recipes and tips on how to prepare and cook the vegetables featured during each program.

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For over 20 years,  Marian Morash’s  ‘The Victory Garden Cookbook’ has been my ‘go-to’ guide for various ways to prepare fresh vegetables. It’s one of my all-time favorite cookbooks, originally published by Alfred A Knopf, Inc in 1982 and retailed for $39.95. It’s truly endured the test of time and continues to be worth the initial investment.  (By the way, this book was republished in 2010 by Knopf Publishing and can be ordered for $37.95 from my friend Dan’s indie bookstore – Water Street Books – in Exeter, NH. Tell Dan I sent you!)

 

I also feel the need to mention other gardening influences – since I know my mom is a regular reader of this blog. She and my grandfather will always be noted as my earliest gardening mentors. It was always amazing to me that Mom had as much – if not more – knowledge as Roger Swain — she just didn’t have a TV show to validate her expertise 25+ years ago. Today, she is THE ‘go-to’ woman among our networks of friends to identify just about any plant or flower native to New England – as well as southern Florida. I’ve learned a lot from her, but still need to refer to guides to confirm some plant name suspicions.

Fast Forward to 2017

With a well-established garden, I still read magazines and books, as well as attend events like the annual Boston Flower Show, for new ideas and insight on gardening trends.  Two topics have been of special interest to me over the past few years:

1) Saving seeds from year to year;  and

2) Dealing with an invasion of weeds, without resorting to the use of harmful herbicides.

It was though the Nashua Public Library knew of my two special focus areas. In early January,  I was delighted to read about an upcoming seminar about ‘Seeds and Weeds’ FEATURING Roger Swain! It didn’t think twice about signing up and requested two spaces, so I could bring Mom, too.

Nearly 100 Nashua area gardeners schlepped to the Nashua Public Library on a very cold February night for the free seminar. Honestly, it was such a treat to be out, talking with other like-minded people about the hope of spring and gardening in the middle of winter. The timing was perfect since by February 16 we were just starting to notice the days were growing noticeably longer —  darkness had started to set in around 5:30pm instead of 4:30pm,

We arrived at the Library and Swain was already at the front of the room chatting with early arrivals. When the clock struck 7pm, Swain removed his sweater vest to reveal his trademark red suspenders and spent the next hour telling his stories about gardening in New England – with a special emphasis on better understanding weeds and how to control them.

The Truth about Weeds 

The big take away for me (and for Mom, too!) included the need to use the right tools for weeding AND being out in the garden, early in the morning to remove newly emerging weeds – not late in the day as I tend to do.  Just for the record, my mom always claimed there are thousands  of very old seeds hiding deep within soil — everywhere. She’s always been against the spring ritual of rototilling. Her argument has been that the process of rototilling results in more weeds and in the end, more work.  Of course, Swain confirmed her theory and once again she’s been right all of these years. Swain suggested long handled hoes that you sweep across the ground (while standing up) to gently pull up newly emerged weeds. Not one to complain about skipping the back-breaking kneeling that I associate with weeding, it looks like the 2017 budget for ‘Preen’ will be spent, instead, on some fancy new hoes this year!

I also appreciated Swain’s comments about organic gardening. He talked about “PMO Gardening” (Pretty Much Organic Gardening).  I feel vindicated with this thought. Over the past decade, I’ve been especially careful of the seeds, plants, and the various soils and composts brought into the garden, especially for the things we eat.  I have a compost tumbler, but the truth is, it takes a few years to get really good quality compost from this gadget I bought over 10 years ago.  Honestly, it’s one of the most disappointing items I’ve ever purchased for the garden – but it’s here and we use. I like the idea of re-purposing things back into use – for example, I’ve started to shred leaves in the fall and use them as mulch in the garden beds vs. buying a hundred bags to have the leaves carried to the landfill (Nashua has a wonderful soft waste curbside collection service, but I’d prefer to let the leaves turn into mulch in my own yard). When I had the limestone steps replaced on my porch with granite, the mason was kind enough to cut the old limestone into squares to use as garden stepping stones, saving a trip to the landfill.  So, from now on, I’ll always remember that as long as I try my best to be a good steward of nature, it’s acceptable to be a “PMO Gardener” and to even sometimes use an herbicide, but only when used sparingly and absolutely necessary. (Thanks for taking away all the guilt, Mr. Swain!) 

Seeds Bring Great Expectations

Once Swain finished his stories, the event transitioned to a Community Seed Swap across the hall from the seminar. The event organizers encouraged gardeners to bring seeds to share with one another.  I took this request seriously and was thrilled to prepare 70 packages for other local gardeners to take home.

 

I brought a variety of seeds from perennials and annuals in my own garden including: Zinnias that originally started in the Community Gardens at Greeley Park in Nashua a few years ago; Jewel-toned Morning Glories; Baptisia aka: False Indigo; and Rudbeckia Maxima.

It was a relaxing (and hopeful!) process in early February to separate the seeds and create the packages with photos and information from my own garden.  I even felt well-rewarded when I left the Seed Swap part of the evening’s program. I brought home seeds donated for the event by the High-Mowing Seed Company. I look forward to planting them to grow mixed greens and herbs, as well as some interesting varieties of kale starting in mid-May.

While spring arrived on the calendar yesterday, the view of the garden from my office window  today (where I write this blog) is telling me Mother Nature has not yet received the ‘2017 Change of Seasons Memo’. We still have a thick, crunchy blanket of snow from last week’s Stella Blizzard – but I do see improvement as the St. Francis statue (on the bottom left) was covered with snow up to just under his chin only a few days ago. I’m so glad to have these little packages of seeds to give me hope and ‘Great Expectations’ on a just another late March day.

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“It was one of those March days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold: when it is summer in the light, and winter in the shade.”

       ~Charles Dickens, Great Expectations


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Pussy Willows Galore!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, Pussy Willows Galore!

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

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

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

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

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

The cycle continues.

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


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Gardening Epiphany

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 


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What Lies Beneath

Two words come to mind when I’m asked to sum up this year’s winter in NH: Historical & Hysterical.

We’ve had record-breaking snowfall and frigid temperatures in January and February. The depth of the snow has reached nearly 80 inches in some areas around my yard — several back-to-back storms with blizzard conditions created drifts, like never seen before. A typical conversation over the past month includes words and phrases like: Roofrakes: Soldout, Snowblowers, Snowplowing, Ice Dam, Damn Ice, Retire to Florida, Too Cold,  Frigid, etc.

As I looked out of the window this am, I was greeted by two more inches of snow that fell overnight – definitely no big deal at this point (and, secretly, not necessarily unwanted, as the fresh snow covers the filthy black piles that have been building up all winter!)

Then my thoughts started to spring forward, just as our clocks will spring forward for the start of Daylight Savings Time this weekend.

I imagined the garden underneath all of this snow.

I imagined the garden sleeping under a thick white blanket, being protected from the Polar Vortex winds that have not allowed the temperatures to rise above 20 degrees (until today, March 4th.)

I imagined that the plants, especially the early ones, like the crocus and lilacs are as anxious to see and feel the warmth of the sunshine (just as I am!)

Thankfully, a file filled with garden photos, from over the years, allows me to see some of what I imagined, creating the inspiration to share some views of “What Lies Beneath.”

For me, these photos provide hope for the arrival of spring, as well as context to always remember this historical (and hysterical!) winter, that will soon be only a memory.

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View of the back garden on March 4, 2015. Two weeks ago, the snow completely covered the sun and bird garden ornaments.

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Nearly same garden view during late June 2014.

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Looking down the purple coneflower path. March 3, 2014

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Similar view of the purple coneflower path in late July 2014.

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View of the back patio – there’s a table and chair set as well as a grill under all of that white! (You can see the remnants of last years pink mandevilla on the far right!)

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This is the back patio in mid June 2014. It looks more livable when not buried in snow! Thankfully, spring is just around the corner!