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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Garden Hack #1: Screen Out Seedling Problems

Sometimes, we all need ideas, tips, and tricks to make our work in the garden easier. Over the the past five years, I’ve tried and tested several “Garden Hacks” and want to share the ones that truly work so others may use them too.

My first Hack involves recycling and upcycling. Honestly, there is no better place to engage these practices than in the garden!

Garden Hack #1: Screen Out Seedling Problems

This is my favorite Garden Hack because it was published in Fine Gardening magazine’s February 2016 issue. (There’s nothing more rewarding than your favorite gardening publication validating your tip – in print!) 

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The tradition continues this growing season. Despite a cold, rainy month, my future salad (Black Seeded Simpson lettuce) is thriving in its screened setting.

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Once the seedlings get a little bigger, I’ll remove the screen for a few hours each day, but will cover it up at night to keep out the visiting nocturnal critters. We’re hoping for a first cutting for salad in early June.

Do you have a favorite Garden Hack? Share it with a comment!

 


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A ‘Deep Purple’ Earworm

While walking outside this morning to discover what is #bloominginmygardennow, a song from my preteen years popped into my head —- ‘Deep Purple.’

“When the deep purple falls, over sleepy garden walls, and the stars begin to twinkle in the night…..”

I listened to that song on a Donny & Marie album over and over again when I was a young girl – back at the time of the hit variety show on television in the 70s. (The original was recorded in 1963 by Nino Tempo and April Stevens – which I didn’t know until I looked up the song online today!) 

Decades later, ‘Deep Purple’ takes on new significance for me – especially during the first two weeks of May. As the early spring tulips and flowering trees lose their petals, the purple iris emerges – always at the same time as the lilacs. This year, a tulip that hasn’t come up for many years also appeared this week to round out a trifecta of spectacular deep purple blooms during the first 10 days of May.

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The purple or burgundy iris has been in my garden for 25 years!  My mother brought it home after an early May visit to Uncanoonuc Mt Perennials. Unfortunately, the garden center recently closed after decades of bringing delight to gardeners across New Hampshire. These iris are prolific and have been split every few years to be shared with other gardening friends. (Every year, I hear from at least one other person who is also enjoying these flowers. This week my friends Terri and Ann, both colleagues from Sun Microsystems (who also happen to share the same March Birthday!) reminded me they are also enjoying their annual iris display this week!)

This iris is compact, on a short stem. It’s always the first iris to bloom each spring. It looks especially nice planted with cushion spurge since that is a bright peridot color, blooming at the same time. We lost that companion planting in recent years, so there’s a note for this year’s transplants to make sure the situation is rectified for 2018!

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The state flower for New Hampshire is the lilac. The garden has several established lilacs ranging from a light lavender to this deep purple color. We even have a three year old ‘Sensation’ lilac with a patterned mix of white and dark purple petals. Honestly, you find the lilacs in the garden with your nose before ever seeing them with your eyes.

It’s always nice to see our neighbors walk by, slow down, and then stop to smell the flowers hanging over the fence. There’s no better spring experience than deeply inhaling the intoxicating perfume of lilacs.

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These tulips were some of the last to emerge this spring. They are in a section of the garden that was originally started by my grandfather.  They were a nice surprise this week. I can’t even remember when they were planted, but I don’t remember seeing them the past few years. They certainly round out the trio of the deep purple flowers that will enhance the garden for the next week or so.

I was hoping that sitting down and writing this story about my garden experience today, the earworm referenced in the title would subside.

Apparently, that will only happen “in my deep purple dreams!”


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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.

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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!

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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.

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Pussy Willows in my home

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Pussy Willows in Liz’s home

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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The Power of Patchouli

Patchouli reminds me of Brussels Sprouts or Cilantro. You either love it – or hate it. There’s really no in-between.

Personally, I’ve always been fond of Patchouli, enjoying its fragrance in candles and essential oils. I knew Patchouli came from some exotic plant, but never in my wildest dreams thought about growing it in New Hampshire – until early spring of 2015.

While shopping for container annuals and herbs at Salem’s Lake Street Nursery during the early days of spring, there it was….a tiny 4 inch pot of Patchouli for under $5!

This trip to the nursery was after the record breaking winter of 2015, so there was so much hope for the months ahead – coming across the small Patchouli plant was an unplanned bonus. I had no idea what to do with it – nevertheless, it made its way back to Nashua  to be added as a whimsical item for the 2015 garden.

The young leaves had the fragrance of….well…Patchouli!

It was amazing to touch the leaves, releasing their oils to scent my hands and the air nearby.  It was also fun to show it to garden visitors, by breaking off a piece and asking them to guess what it is. Most people remarked it smelled familiar, but they can’t come up with the plant. Once I tell them, there’s always great discussion on the memories that the Patchouli fragrance evokes. One garden guest immediately shared that it smelled just like our friend, Karen. (She was absolutely right – I never think of Karen without thinking of her signature fragrance!)

By the end of the 2015 growing season, the Patchouli plant was about a foot and a half tall and wide and it seemed a shame to let the October frost claim it. So, an experiment ensued.

I cut the stems off and dried the leaves to create a small dish of Patchouli Potpourri. Within a few weeks, the fragrance from the dried leaves disappeared. After cutting back the plant to the soil level, it was watered well and over-wintered in the basement.  By spring of 2016, the Patchouli plant came back to life and was ready for another growing season in our New Hampshire garden.

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The perfect place in the 2016 garden was under a 30 year old Weeping Cherry tree in the backyard.  By the end of the summer, it turned into a huge shrub – reaching its maximum size of 3′ x 3′. Unfortunately, the growing season was not long enough to allow it to reveal the white flowers I’ve read about when researching Patchouli.

By late September, as the cooler nights started to set in, it was time to do something with the Patchouli. I really wanted to create some essential oil…..so I did.

It was a several week process — I used instructions found online. Since I don’t have the equipment to steam distill the oil, I used the method of infusing the dried leaves in the oil. Basically, you dry the leaves and infused them in a carrier oil. I used organic Sweet Almond Oil.

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Time to cut back the Patchouli

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The neighborhood Garden Cat supervised the Patchouli Harvest

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Patchouli after being infused in oil for 2 months. The entire plant fit in one hand.

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Production line – 12 one ounce bottles!

The jury is still out on the final result.  Personally, the fragrance is light and smells fresh or green – not deep and musky as I expected. Apparently Patchouli Oil improves with time. As it ages, it turns darker and the fragrance grows more potent.

Interestingly, many people are anxious to receive gifts made with plants from my garden. Not true with the Patchouli Oil.  More people than not have kindly said, “Thanks but no thanks.” So my few Patchouli loving friends are part of a longer term experiment to determine if the end product actually improves as it ages – like a fine wine!

In the meantime, I’ve been researching the various uses for the oil beyond it’s powerful fragrance. Among other things, I learned Patchouli Oil has been used for thousands of years and was once considered very valuable, being used as an exchange for gold by early European traders.  One pound of Patchouli for one pound of gold. King Tut even arranged to have 10 gallons of it buried in his tomb!

The history also includes use to scent fabric in the 19th century, to keep moths away, as well as to treat skin maladies and sexual dysfunction.  Today, it’s being used primarily as I expected, as a fragrance. The aromatherapy benefits of Patchouli Oil include anxiety, stress, and depression relief. You can learn more about the history and uses of Patchouli Oil at Mercola’s website.

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In the end, my production of Patchouli Oil resulted in 12 ounces of medium-yellow colored oil – to perfectly fill the 12 bottles I ordered for the project.  The label designed for the bottles includes one of the sunflowers from my garden grown during the 2016 season.  It will be interesting to save a bottle or two for a few years to see if the fragrance and color deepen to what I was initially expecting.  Only time will tell.

“Suddenly, I felt like I was wearing Patchouli Oil in a room full of Chanel.”

~ Carrie Bradshaw, Sex and the City


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Find the Seed at the Bottom of Your Heart…

Gerber Daisies are one of my favorite flowers. Being an annual, there’s always a pot of them in the summer garden to add splashes of color among the perennials. That means I get to pick out a new plant each year – and there’s always a bright array of options ranging from red and orange to hot pink. My closest friends know that I can’t resist seeing one of these flowering plants or a bouquet of cut stems without taking a moment or two to absorb their beauty.

Gerbers are a plant that I can usually find at a local grocery store by mid February (Whole Foods in Nashua usually has great ones!) Bringing this live plant into my home during the later part of winter, as the days start to get noticeably longer, gets me excited for the start of the pending gardening season. (Especially on days like today, when the three storms over the past five days bring a fresh accumulation of over 25″ of snow.)

The ritual of adding this annual flower started about 15 years ago with a pot of bright red Gerber Daisies to welcome visitors at the entry to the backyard garden.  The blossoms were about 4-6 inches across were show-stopping as they bloomed all summer. There were always at least three flowers in bloom with as many buds pushing up through the dense soil. I diligently deadheaded the plant to always encourage new growth – until one day I faced a dilemma.

One of the newly emerged buds, on a stem still less than an inch tall, didn’t look like the others. It was very flat and lopsided, as if someone had tightly pinched it. Being close to the end of the growing season, there was only one more bud pushing through the soil. My first thought was to snip the odd bud. I didn’t.

About 10 days later, the most beautiful flower was revealed — a bright red Gerber Daisy with a beautiful, perfect heart center.

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I pull out this image every year, to share it with friends for Valentine’s Day. It’s a heartfelt reminder to look past perceived imperfections because there may be something perfect inside just waiting to be revealed.

Side Note: I think it’s important to share this factoid, since this is the ‘Garden with Grace’ blog. When Grace, the dog, was in a New Jersey shelter, her name was Gerber before she came to New Hampshire via an animal rescue group.  There were thoughts of adjusting her name to Daisy, keeping the thought of Gerber in place, but since she responded to Grace and arrived on Good Friday, the rest of history. That said, I think of that girl whenever I type the words Gerber Daisy. She had her imperfections too, including scars from years of abuse, but when cared for and loved, she had a perfect heart, too.

“Find the seed at the bottom of your heart and bring forth a flower.”

~ Shigenori Kameoka