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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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!


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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!


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Observing ‘the Risk to Blossom’ Today

The weather in New England, specifically where I live, in southern New Hampshire (NH) has forced me to follow my calendar this year. This fall, the garden continues to offer daily surprises, even though we’re well in to November and just over a month away from the Winter Solstice.

We’ve had a spectacular foliage season in NH – lots of red, orange, and yellow to decorate the landscape. This Japanese Maple is a good example of the bright colors:

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Typically, the 7-10 days after Halloween is a big leaf raking/blowing week.  We’re fortunate in Nashua to have curb-side pickup of soft yard waste until the end of November.  In past years, the leaves were blown/raked, shredded, and either put to the curb or added to the compost bin by now.

Today, I looked out of the window.  If I didn’t know better, I’d thought it was a beautiful mid-October day.

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Not only have the leaves refused to fall, but some of the flowers in the garden are still blooming as though it were still late summer. Most unusual is when I look out to the back patio and see that the Mandevilla is still looking great! I’ve never had one of these plants last in my garden/yard past mid September because even the smallest touch of frost kills this tropical plant in an instant.

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While there has been a chill in the air the past 6 weeks,  we’ve yet to have a hard freeze.  What a treat it was to walk thru the garden and find some surprises on November 9!  Typically, the Hollyhocks bloom mid-late summer.  This one got wrapped into the Morning Glories. While the Glories are not so glorious anymore, there’s still one last bloom being pushed out by the Hollyhock. I can actually see it from across the yard while looking out of my home-office window.

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Weeks ago, I thought I had seen the ‘last rose of summer’. Maybe I did and these are ‘the last roses of autumn’? If they stick it out, they could be the first roses of winter.

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Also paying a surprise visit today were the ‘Pinks’ aka: Dianthus and the ‘Indian Blanket’ aka: Gaillardia.

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Isn’t Mother Nature incredible? She definitely has a plan.

It makes me wonder if these flowers in the garden today were late bloomers or perhaps they are the best example of Anais Nin’s quote that has always been an inspiration to me in early spring:

“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”