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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#BloominginMyGardenNow

Good-Bye 2017 Gardening Season!

It’s been three weeks since our first hard freeze in southern New Hampshire. Work in the garden has been winding down. It’s time to rake leaves to create more mulch/compost, clean and store delicate statuary and birdbaths, bring in hoses, etc. Planting spring bulbs should be fun, but after a long season, even that project feels like just another chore. (I’ll think differently about that when I have 50 new tulips blooming come spring, though!)

I’ll be honest. I think every gardener needs a winter break – especially following a successful gardening season.

Overall, 2017 was an excellent season. The zinnias were spectacular! We had a decent harvest of fresh herbs and greens, tomatoes, and peppers. The wine cork mulch project far exceeded expectations! And the hummingbirds arrived and departed exactly as expected – delighting us every single day during their nearly 6 month visit.

The were only two disappointments. 1) The lack of peony flowers in June and 2) the ever constant ‘sad, sod situation’ of the lawn. (Planting white clover seemed like a genius idea this spring. I was even bragging about how great the yard looked in May and June. Then ‘Beatrix Potter’ arrived! Our new resident wild cottontail bunny enjoyed the clover in July — eating all the lush green back to the roots. Oh well, I guess everyone needs to eat and that was the only havoc wreaked our new garden visitor.)

And here it is, late November and I’m just sharing some of the 2017 stories now. My original intent with my ‘Garden with Grace’ blog was to document each growing season – in detail. That said, while I’ve had the best of intentions, as well as at least a dozen gardening stories (constantly!) in my head, I’m not as consistent with sitting down to write during the summer months.

Hello Instagram!

Thankfully, I can look back to my photos – especially those on Instagram – to remember annual gardening highlights. I invite you to FOLLOW ME via: https://www.instagram.com/gardenwithgrace/

Instagram Screenshot

I’ve been using #BloominginMyGardenNow for a few years now and never realized that it’s pretty much MY hashtag until a friend in the media called it out for me. (By the way, as a marketing and communications professional, I think that’s pretty cool, and admit that I’d tried to create a hashtag to be my own, it would’ve been a lot more difficult!) 

It’s amazing how a basic mobile phone camera can create such detailed photos of flowers and in some cases, insects. I don’t use any filters on my Instagram photos, so what you see, is what I see. On the days I’m searching for inspiration, I scroll through my Instagram feed to either write, plan for next year’s garden, or just remember past moments in the garden.

So my documentation of each gardening season is, indeed, getting done. Not in the way initially intended or planned, but it works nonetheless….very much like the actual act of gardening, itself.

“Despite the gardener’s best intentions, Nature will improvise.” ~M.P. Garafalo

 


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Good Gardeners Know the Best Dirt

One of the first signs of spring in my world is always the fragrance of  newly opened bags of potting soil for seed starting and transplanting. Fellow gardeners know — fresh dirt just smells incredible! It’s a heavenly spring fragrance, especially after a long New England winter.

I have about a dozen large pots for annuals, including flowers, herbs, and vegetables around my garden that I fill with fresh potting soil late each spring – it’s about a $100 investment………….for dirt!

This year, I used different soil mixes in different pots for different plantings. I didn’t intend to conduct an experiment. There was some left over Doctor Earth soil in my potting shed that I used in some of my tomato planters. Then I found some Organic Miracle Grow Moisture Control with coir potting soil at Costco (huge bags – I think 15 qts for $9.99 each.) I used this in my five coleus planters and one of my herb planters. And finally, I got some Coast of Maine potting soil from the Nashua Farmer’s Exchange for my other large herb planter. Coast of Maine products have long been a favorite product in my garden – especially their awesome Lobster Compost.

It’s important that no matter how experienced we are, good gardeners always seek experts to help us to grow our skills and knowledge. Gene and Judy, the owners of the Nashua Farmer’s Exchange, are the experts I count on for good advice.  They have been ‘trusted advisors’ to both my mom and me for many years when it comes to trying new things and finding solutions to garden challenges.

This year, Judy recommended the Stonington Blend  potting soil from Coast of Maine when I stopped in to get the dirt on the best dirt for my large herb containers. Knowing the great quality of the Coast of Maine products, I took Judy’s advice. While the product is a little more expensive than I typically purchase, it was on sale and worth a try.  As I paid for my purchase, Judy whispered to me that the Stonington Blend has a great reputation among medicinal marijuana growers. I found that interesting and kind of funny since I was purchasing POTting soil.

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Stonington Blend by Coast of Maine – A New Garden Favorite!

Not realizing that I’d need A LOT of soil for my herb planters, I bought only enough Stonington Blend for one container (which wasn’t an issue – or so I thought! – since I bought those huge bags of the organic Miracle Grow mix from Costco). So, each herb planter used different soil – which set up my unintended gardening experiment this summer.

Seeing is believing!

First, I will share that both planters had the exact same conditions and were set about 10 feet away from each other, with the same amount of sun. The only difference is that one had the Miracle Grow Soil and the other had the Stonington Blend.  The Sweet Basil in both containers is the true testament to the difference – both came from the same batch of seedlings, started at the same time.

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September 2, 2017 – Miracle Grow – Organic with Coir Moisture Control (#1)

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September 2, 2017 – Stonington Potting Mix – Coast of Maine (#2)

Both of these containers were planted during Memorial Day Weekend of 2017.  And clippings from both containers were taken all summer – however, the quality of the herbs in the Miracle Grow was just terrible this year. I actually took more cuttings from the Stonington Blend container (#2) because it was so much further ahead all summer. Initially, I started the Thai Basil – on the far left of container #2 – in the Miracle Grow container. It didn’t do well, so, I transplanted it to the Stonington Blend container in early August – within three weeks, it quadrupled in size – that was my confirmation that the soil was the big difference between the two containers. (I harvested the Thai Basil last week to make Spicy Tofu Basil for dinner last week. It was so good, I ended up making it twice! That herb is now top of the list to plant again in 2018!)

Here’s the comparison on the day that I harvested Sweet Basil on September 9, 2017.

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Both bunches of basil were started together and harvested at the same time. The big, bright bunch on the left was grown in the Stonington Blend. The lighter, smaller leaves were grown in Miracle Grow Organic Moisture Control Mix. Same number of plants in each container.

I visited the Nashua Farmer’s Exchange in mid September to share the results of my unintended experiment with Gene. He gave me a lot of background on the movement of soil producers around the country to create top quality potting mixes for the medicinal marijuana market. From what I gather, the product I used from Coast of Maine is one of, if not the top, potting soil available for this purpose today. For my own use, I’m just awestruck with the results we saw for my herb containers.

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My Garden Advisor, Gene, owner of the Nashua Farmer’s Exchange.

Container #2 with the Stonington Blend is still on my back patio – and is absolutely flourishing! The flat-leaf parsley and mints that looked terrible just one month ago in the Miracle Grow container were transplanted to the Stonington Blend – that I mixed up well – on September 2.  Here’s how that planter looked one month later on October 1, 2017 (Before I harvested the Thai Basil):20171001_135813In the past, this was a week when remaining herbs would be removed and containers cleaned and put away until spring. However, with absolutely no frost or freezes expected in southern New Hampshire for at least two more weeks, these are staying put so I can enjoy the parsley and mint through October.  Halloween Mojitos, anyone?

“There are no gardening mistakes, only experiments.” ~Janet Kilburn Phillips

 


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The Magic Garden of 2017

If our garden had a theme song for the 2017 Gardening Season, it would be “The Magic Garden.” (Specifically, the version by Dusty Springfield!)

It’s been a beautiful and busy gardening season. And while I had the best of intentions to post more stories, there was always another reason to spend more time outside instead of inside writing blogs.

The weather was wonderful (some would say a little too cool at times!) with just enough rain, sun, and warmth to bring us the most beautiful flowers we’ve seen in years. Some of the perennials we thought we’d lost during last year’s drought came back to life and were better than ever, and even the new lawn of clover took in well (the bunny can attest to that!)

Here’s a visual overview of this summer’s Magic Garden!

 

 

“There is a garden
Something like the shadow of a butterfly
And lies beyond the gates of dark and light
And darling, it belongs to me
And when you go there
There will be such laughter in the dimpled sky
The songs I sing
Will drive away the night
The magic garden
Has a way of making you feel free
It’s the place I’ve made for you
From five Players cards and dominoes
And it won’t fall down
And when your dreaming vanishes
Like snowflakes in the summer sky
Melts away in darkness
And you don’t know why the magic garden
Waits with all the gates wide open
And darlin’, I’ll be standin’ just inside
It’s so soft and warm
Behind those hedges
No hard edges
No hard edges
It’s so soft and warm
Behind those hedges
No hard edges
No hard edges”
Songwriters: Jimmy Webb / Jimmy L Webb
The Magic Garden lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

 

 

 


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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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Garden Hack #2: Wine Cork Mulch

For many, many years, my friends and I saved wine corks – always thinking of all the crafts we would create with them, including wreaths, trivets, tree ornaments. Those crafty days never  really took shape (other than one or two wreaths), even though we always had the best of intentions.

After collecting hundreds (if not thousands!) of wine corks for nearly two decades, it was time to do something or to pass the corks on to someone who would. At the same time, a young paper bark maple tree was planted in the backyard. It needed mulch, but there’s an effort underway in my garden to cut back on bark mulch because it zaps nutrients from plants.

Hack #2: Wine Cork Mulch!

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Suddenly, the idea of Wine Cork Mulch became a reality and good use for more than 25lbs of corks! I just place the corks where I’d normally put bark mulch. It worked out perfectly for the Paperbark Maple planted a few years ago, adding whimsy to a new garden focal point. After nearly three years, the natural corks weathered to a silver-grey, similar to how teak changes color over time. Yes, there are even some plastic corks mixed in – adding tiny splashes of yellow, blue, and dark purple.  Occasionally, on a very windy or rainy day, a few corks may blow or bounce out of the bed, the same happens to bark mulch.

The success of this mulching project resulted in the continued collection of corks to mulch another bed across the garden.

CorkMulch-2017 Before

This spring, we started to mulch the bed that leads to the secret zinnia garden behind the garage. Surely, this big bucket of corks would fill the space completely — or so we thought!

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We were close. But definitely needed more corks to complete this project. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past few years is that it’s okay to ask for help. Friends love to help other friends, especially for interesting projects. When I realized more corks would be needed, I simply put out a call to my friends via social media on a Sunday afternoon to bring corks when they visit over the summer.

Within hours, my good friend and fellow gardener, Terri (aka: @TerriinRed on Twitter) stopped by, not with corks, but with unopened bottles of wine that included corks!  A few days later, Liz came over after one of our Friday morning walks with a huge bag full of corks – well over 100 of them! (Liz was featured in one of my earlier Garden with Grace stories when we spent an evening in 2014 Gardening at the Gardener Museum in Boston.) 

The cork mulch has definitely become a fun conversation among my friends in recent weeks, especially as more people drop by to contribute to what I call a ‘worthy cause!’ Most recently, Cathy dropped by to catch up after her vacation to Italy. She brought corks (and a few rocks from Tuscany – for my garden!)

Rosemarie brought over A LOT of corks a few days after Cathy. Like the start of this story, she also saved corks for years for craft projects. However, she did make some good attempts and many of the corks donated by Rosemarie have drill holes! (I love my friends!)

As you can see, I put Cathy and Rosemarie to work to help with the actual garden mulching. (Another benefit of cork mulch over bark mulch is that it’s not a dirty or buggy project!)  Of course, both of these wonderful women were rewarded with a glass of wine!

I’m constantly finding corks in my pockets and purse now! After a visit to other friends’ homes for gatherings like Mother’s Day or an afternoon lunch, instead of bringing home a ‘doggy-bags’ with leftovers, I simply keep the corks, knowing one cork here and another there will add up fast.

A successful cork finding mission took place this week.  During a stop for a drink at MTs Local Kitchen & Wine Bar in Downtown Nashua, a conversation was struck up with the bartender about my Wine Cork Mulching project.CorkMulch-MTs

I shared some of my photos and asked if MT’s kept their corks or just tossed them away. By the time I was ready to leave, I was offered a bag with 48 corks! All are now in my garden. My one regret is not counting ALL of the corks before putting them into the garden beds. (That knowledge would have sparked some interesting conversation when entertaining in the garden — of course with more wine to keep the cork beds full!)

It’s going to take a few more weeks to fill in all the gaps for the latest project, so I’ll keep on my mission to find more corks. And, if you happen to visit MT’s Local in Nashua, the cork from your glass or bottle of wine enjoyed with your dinner just may end up in my garden one day!

I think cork collecting may now be considered an ongoing adjunct hobby connected to a gardening obsession. I’ve already found a new bed to mulch with wine corks. I’m thinking the one with the Wine & Roses Weigela and Summer Wine Ninebark would be ideal!


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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.

Lettuce hack

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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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