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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Gifts from the Garden

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

~Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet


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Plan Now to Attract More Hummingbirds to Your Garden Next Summer

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!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Add These Flowers to Your Garden and Attract More Hummingbirds

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

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

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

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

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Cardinal Flower aka: Lobelia Cardinalis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 


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Dig, Shake, Stir: From Garden to Bar

One of my favorite things about gardening is to find creative uses for harvested items, especially the herbs. Over the years, I’ve dried herbs to create interesting crafts with everlasting flowers such as lavender.  However, a favorite way to save and savor some favorites from the garden involve cocktail infusions.

When I have an abundance of  hot peppers at the end of each summer, I buy a bottle of plain vodka. Something like Smirnoff works well (though I do have a friend who chastises me, insisting I should only use top shelf spirits – – let’s just say that we agree to disagree!). I toss in a few spicy peppers that have been partially cut to the new bottle of  vodka and within a week, it becomes a spicy ingredient for a fantastic Bloody Mary! And as the Pepper Vodka ages, it gets even hotter — so I simply top the bottle off from time to time with more plain vodka. It’s seems like an endless bottle by mid winter. By the next summer, I’m really to start all over again.

In years past, my neighbor usually had so many peaches and plums that he resorted to begging his friends to take them from him – or he secretly delivered them to our homes, whether we wanted them or not! With his harvests, I’ve infused the peaches and plums in brandy.

Other experiments included pears infused in brandy and rhubarb infused in vodka. (Those were never made again, but were worth trying. In the end, it was a waste of good pears and rhubarb that could have been better used in a baked item where they would be enjoyed more.)

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This year, I tried two new infusions.  Blackberry Brandy and Lemongrass Vodka.

My friend Bobbi lives at the NH seacoast and is a fellow gardener. I love that her garden has a blackberry and blueberry patch, along with some pear and apple trees (and a pony named Sachi!)  At the end of last summer, I paid her a visit and returned home with armfuls of peaches, pears, blueberries, and blackberries. The peaches, pears and blueberries were saved for eating. But, the blackberries were picked with the intent to make a batch of Blackberry Brandy for the 2017 holiday season.

Blackberry Brandy is very easy to prepare. I simply took a large (sterilized) glass jar, added the blackberries (about 1.5 c) and a few tablespoons sugar (since the berries were more tart than sweet this year), lightly muddled the ingredients and then poured a bottle of E&J Brandy over the mixture. I let it sit in my cool, dark basement for 8 weeks, and stirred the dark, thick contents of the bottle weekly. Then I strained it through cheesecloth and bottled it. I’m pleased with the results, but will add more blackberries if I try this again next year.

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The surprise creation of the summer was the Lemongrass Vodka. I’ve grown lemongrass in the garden on and off for the past 20 years. Lemongrass plants are sometimes hard to find, so I simply get a stalk of lemongrass from the grocery store in the spring, put it in water, let it root and plant it in the garden in early summer (sometimes in a container, sometimes in the ground.) It makes a beautiful filler plant and sparks good conversation when friends wander through the garden and realize that it’s very fragrant.

I browsed online for ways to create an infusion and all suggested cutting up the inner parts of the lemongrass stalk – some suggested chopping it in a food processor, but I just hand cut it. The stalks on my lemongrass were cut a few weeks before I did this project, which make them smaller, drier, and less pliable.  You can see in the photo on the left, the lemon grass just sitting in the jar of freshly poured vodka.  Within two weeks, the spirit took on a beautiful golden hue.

My Lemongrass Vodka has an herbaceous fragrance and taste with just a light citrus background note. I’ve tried a few cocktails with the infusion, including using the spirit in a straight up dry martini with hint of vermouth. I’ve also tried it with a bit of Lillet instead of vermouth. Both options were good. Most recently, I mixed equal parts of Sake and Lemongrass Vodka and served it very cold.  That was also nice — and a little lighter as far as the hit of alcohol from a straight vodka cocktail.

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I ended up with enough Lemongrass Vodka to fill two small bottles – one for my bar and one for a friend who appreciates unique cocktails as much as I do. He and his wife are on a kick now making a lot of Asian cuisine, including Ramen dishes. I’m looking forward to hear how they create an Lemongrass cocktail to pair well with their newfound culinary experiments!

As I look ahead to planning my 2018 garden in the coming months, I hope to find new items to grow to bring to the bar. Perhaps this will even be the year to create an official Cocktail Garden! (Afterall, it would be an ideal setting for the perfect party!)


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Weeding Thyme

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.

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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.

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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!

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“Give a weed an inch and it will take a yard.”


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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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Autumn Surprise

While I dread the end of the summer, there’s always a surprise in the garden in autumn.

This year, the surprise was late – the Maximillian (or New Mexican) Sunflowers.  These have been in the garden for over a decade, started from seed and over the years have been shared with friends across New England. As I write this, I’m reminded that a clump of them will be travelling this weekend to a special garden of an artist friend in Weare, NH.

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Not your typical sunflowers, these look ‘weedy’ all summer, until they start to bloom in late September.  This year, the bloom didn’t start until mid October – just in time for the frost that is expected this weekend.  There’s nothing more refreshing than a bright burst of yellow in the garden as everything else is ready to come to an end.

Mother Nature is magical!


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Pussycat, Pussycat, Where have you been?

As plants in the garden evolve and change over the years, so has the collection of “Garden Cats” that have taken ownership of my property. It’s funny, because not one of the “Garden Cats” of the past 20 years has belonged to me!

There are too many to mention, but some of the favorites are remembered in a collage in my potting shed.

L-R clockwise: Momma Cat, Cuddles, Bradley, Peppermint. (Momma Cat is the only one still living at 19 yrs old!)

L-R clockwise: Momma Cat, Cuddles, Bradley, Peppermint. (Momma Cat is the only one still living at 19 yrs old!)

For about 10 years, a long haired black cat with bright green eyes has visited the garden somewhat regularly. He’s always been shy, until this year’s gardening season started. His name is Oreo and his owners live a few houses away. Oreo prefers to be an outdoor cat and can be seen here and there and everywhere around the neighborhood.

When Grace was still with us, Oreo would watch intently as we’d walk by, always staying out of her sight (Grace was a big dog!), but I’d always see him peering around corners or from under bushes nearby.  I think that he realizes that there’s no longer a dog at my house.

This was especially evident today. Oreo’s ‘cattitude’ was in full force. Everytime I looked out the window, or walked outside, there he was, taking ownership of the garden.  He especially loves being near the Wine & Roses Wiegela (it seems to be an aphrodisiac for cats when the pink flowers are in bloom, similar to a kiwi vine that was in the garden a few years ago!)

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Oreo resting near the Wine & Roses Wiegela today.

Of course, he’s interested in the Catmint too, but I think that’s due to the fact that the chipmunks have a path nearby.

Oreo enjoying the view (and fragrance of the Catmint flowers in bloom!)

Oreo enjoying the view (and fragrance of the Catmint flowers in bloom!)

I never thought I’d blog about cats. I’m allergic to them. I don’t own any. And, I’ve always been a ‘dog-person’ as is evident by the premise on which this blog was created a few years ago.

However, I do enjoy the company of my “Garden Cats.”  And as any cat-person would tell you, you don’t own them. They own you! In this case, I feel honored that Oreo, and all the other “Garden Cats” of the past two decades, have selected to take ownership of such a special place (and of course, me!)

Just as “Good Queen Bess”, (who inspired the nursery rhyme ‘Pussycat, Pussycat’) decreed that an old cat could wander around her throne room as long as it got rid of mice, I allow the old (and young) cats to wander the garden as long as they do the same! Meoww!