It’s been over a year since my last garden post. And, while I have about a dozen stories in draft form in my head, I’ve had too many distractions to actually sit down to write. Thankfully, the bluebirds have returned for the third consecutive year. And another spring has sprung in New England.
This year’s season of renewal also marks a year since the sudden passing of my mother. I’d shared many stories about gardening with her over the past decade and while she disliked attention, she loved reading my Garden with Grace blog. She was especially touched with a post I wrote at the end of the summer of 2020, Finding Church in the Garden. I’m so glad I wrote that story while mom was still here. It’s a reminder to pay tribute to the living.
Over the past 12 months, I’ve been fortunate to have my garden as a place to experience and work through my grief. It was a feeling I’d never experienced before and is difficult to put into words. There’s a saying that “grief is love with no place to go.” While I somewhat understand that, it recently hit me that my grief went right where it needed to go – back into the garden.
Just one year ago, during the spring of 2021, there was still a lot of isolation due to Covid-19 . Vaccines were just starting and people weren’t yet gathering together in groups. A mild spring was a huge relief as it allowed me to have friends visit in the garden. This was very much needed since there were no formal services after my mother’s death.
One of those visits was on a cold afternoon just before Memorial Day weekend. My friends Marjorie, Elise, and Liz came over for a ‘garden tour’ and Friday afternoon cocktails on The Porch. It was Elise’s first visit to my garden and she really took interest in my focus to remove a manicured lawn and create a welcoming space for wildlife and pollinators.
Elise is one of those friends whom I haven’t known for long, and don’t see often, however, we have a connection to one another through a shared network of wonderful people across our community. She is the reason I finally have a new blog post this evening.
A few weeks ago, she asked if she could create a video using photos from my Garden with GraceInstagram account. Elise is the music director at a local church and wanted the video as a project to celebrate spring. I was honored to be asked to participate. On Earth Day 2022, Elise and I chatted via a recorded Zoom call for over an hour.
Rather than tell you what we discussed, you are invited to listen and watch for a 7 minute recap of our hour+ conversation. I hope you enjoy Elise’s work as much as I do!
Last May, I wrote about the early spring arrival of Eastern Bluebirds in my garden, just as New Hampshire and many places around the globe started to ‘lock down’ at the beginning of the Covid-19 uncertainty. At the time, the bluebirds brought a glimmer of hope, but also a bit of uncertainty.
The hope was that finally, after years of trying to attract bluebirds to the garden, they arrived — just out of the blue. But in fact, while their arrival was a surprise, it shouldn’t have been. In hindsight, I realize the tree cutting in my dense city neighborhood just over a year ago opened the space to the liking of these beautiful and once endangered songbirds.
Perhaps the surprise is what caused my uncertainty. It was all about their nesting box selection – an older birdhouse, nestled among shrubs (a Japanese Fantail Pussywillow and a collection of Ninebark and Weigela). It was always more of a decorative box that was put up years ago – after we removed the bluebird box set up over a decade earlier. This decorative box or bird house was embellished with a copper roof that constantly needed to be nailed back on, and ended up being a spot where the house sparrows raised their young for a few years.
To add to my uncertainty was the (surprising!) input and advice I received from the few Eastern Bluebird groups I visited and (briefly) joined on social media. While I know the members are all well-intentioned, I was really disappointed at how I was berated for the nest box the bluebirds chose to make their 2020 home. I was told that I was not doing the birds any favors by letting them nest there and that I must watch for and kill any sparrows that might take over the nest, among many other things. Honestly, it was overwhelming and didn’t seem right as I’ve always trusted Mother Nature to make good decisions.
Within a few weeks, I decided to trust my gut and my instincts (and Mother Nature, though I know she can seem cruel at times.) I became obsessed watching the box and the birds’ behavior. The sparrows and blue jays were horrible, always trying to overtake the box, but the mating pair of bluebirds kept them at bay.
I’d read about ‘sparrow spookers‘ and added a makeshift one (with gold and blue sparkle ribbon) to the top of the rickety green birdhouse when I thought eggs had been laid (I couldn’t peek inside due to the small opening at the back of the nesting box). My craft project worked well enough because the bluebirds didn’t mind it, yet it kept other nuisance birds away.
By early June, a successful clutch of baby blues hatched and was well cared for by their dedicated parents. I checked on them daily — there were at least three chicks, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were four based on the activity in their box. (The photo above shows the female removing a fecal sack from the box – this happened all day long and is akin to changing diapers on a newborn baby.)
Over the course of two weeks, the chicks grew bigger and louder. The parents were busy all day long with feedings and endless ‘diaper changes’. I credit our dedication over the years of removing pesticides and herbicides from the garden for their survival. There were plenty of grasshoppers and various worms and other bugs to easily catch throughout the garden.
My biggest concern during the nestling stage was the neighborhood cat whom was a constant threat as the pair foraged on the ground for insects. The blue jays concerned me as much as the cat, because a few years ago, I saw them go after baby sparrows in the birdhouses (they take baby sparrows from the house and eat them – it’s horrifying to watch!)
What I found fascinating was the protective role of the mockingbirds, who also took up residence in my garden this past summer. They were like the aunts and uncles who scared off predators while the bluebird parents were away from their box. I’ve looked for information about how other bird species protect one another (or not!) but couldn’t find information about the relationship between bluebirds and mockingbirds. (If you have insight, please let me know via a comment to this story.)
By the end of June, the babies were very loud and active and while they became used to me peeking in on them, I stayed back as much as my curiosity would allow, knowing that I didn’t want their parents getting too upset with me. The feedings were more and more frequent to build their strength, with both the mother and father sharing the dinner (breakfast, lunch, and snacks, too!) duties.
The baby blues were finally ready to leave their little old house during as July 4th approached — it gave a whole new meaning to Independence Day in 2020. I captured the next photo on June 30th, with a strong feeling they’d be taking their first flights the next morning.
Doesn’t this one look ready to take on the world?
The next morning – July 1st, I could see a lot of activity from my home office window at the nest box and noticed something fall out. I ran out the door and within a few minutes, the neighborhood cat came to visit, so he was quickly put into my garage for about an hour. After spotting the first free bird on the fence nearby, I found a second one a few minutes later under a winterberry bush, next to an old bicycle in the back of the garden.
Within an hour, they were all out of their rickety old, copper-roofed birdhouse that ended up giving them an excellent start to their new lives. For a few days, I’d see three chicks in the trees and shrubs around my garden. Always with one of the parents nearby.
As the next few weeks passed, I saw my blue buddies less and less. Then, unfortunately, by the end of July, about a month after these baby blues headed out into the world, a deceased male adult bluebird was found at the end of my driveway near the road.
There were no visible injuries, so it’s assumed it may have hit a car windshield as it took its typical flight path from across the street to one of my garden birdbaths (but honestly, my first thoughts were of the neighborhood garden cat!) We’ll never know for sure.
There was a sudden sense of sadness, but it was outweighed by the realization that the arrival and survival of Eastern Bluebirds in the garden in 2020 was truly a success — and even now, as we look at more time at home in the coming months, their company was meant to be.
” All bluebirders must feel like “one of the chosen ones” when we are fortunate enough to have nesting bluebirds on our own property…”
Each gardening season, I ‘discover’ something new – and usually very exciting (at least to me!) – about our backyard garden habitat. Over the past few years, I’ve spent time getting to really know ‘my’ Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds, Cedar Waxwings, and American Gold Finches. Initially, 2020 appeared to be on track to be the year of ‘my Bluebirds‘.
While the Bluebirds were such a gift of hope this past spring – they started a new family of at least three little ones that fledged in late June – the reality of the 2020 garden turned out to be all about ‘my bees’. While not necessarily a new discovery this year, the sheer number and variety of ‘bees’ in the garden has been interesting, and on some days, even a bit exciting. Perhaps so much extra time in the garden in 2020 just provided the opportunity to become more observant, appreciative, and aware of the creatures keeping me company outside. Even as late as Christmas Day this year – when we had unusual warmth for a few days – I saw and heard bees in my New Hampshire garden — they were especially interested in the holly and the faded enkianthus tree.
Let’s get this out of the way before I continue. I am not an ‘apiarist’ aka: bee expert. I became fascinated with bees after reading Sue Monk Kidd’s ‘The Secret Life of Bees’ almost 20 years ago. That book inspired me to learn more about beekeeping, but my career in the tech industry was a higher priority back then…and I knew I just couldn’t make a living by selling honey in New Hampshire for a few months a year.
Over the years since, I’ve chatted with beekeepers and while I continue to be fascinated by these beautiful and important creatures that are detrimental to our own survival, I’ve still not pursued hive-tending or honey-gathering. Instead I’ve targeted my focus on ensuring a better environment for the bees that reside in our garden. It’s a focus that both my mom and I have become committed to in our shared garden, especially over the past decade. It’s one small way to have a personal and positive impact to address climate change.
I have friends and neighbors who are afraid of bees and when they complain to me about them, I always think about this passage from ‘The Secret Life of Bees’. It still stands out in my mind, two decades after first reading it.
The last two sentences from that passage are key. Specifically, “Send the bees love.” I whisper to the bees while I garden (and I no longer care what my neighbors think if they hear me!) Especially in mid to late summer, I thank the bees for their hard work to keep my garden blooming all season. I also thank them for not stinging me!
I believe the bees feel my love when I check on their well-being. On some August mornings when they are motionless, especially in my zinnias, I offer a very gentle nudge and soft hello (yes, I pat the bees like I would cat or a dog!) Every single time, they move just a bit, as if to ask me for just a little more time to rest. They certainly deserve it, so I quietly walk away and wish them a good day (with a sense of relief after seeing life). The bee in this zinnia seemed to actually roll over upon being roused when I gave it a little pat. It was just fine. Perhaps only a little overworked from a busy morning of pollinating!
The only other times I will touch bees is when they get swept into the deep end of our many birdbaths found throughout the garden. Like all living things, bees need water. In my garden, bees can often be found around the perimeter of the birdbaths, especially after they’ve been refreshed with clean water each morning. This summer, I pulled more bees (honeybees and bumblebees) and their cousins (yellow jackets and wasps) out of their giant watering holes when I’ve seen them struggle to escape. I gently scoop them up with my hands (or a small stick for yellow jackets) and place them on the rocks or soft ground in nearby shade to dry off. Every single time, they’ve flown away a few minutes after regaining their composure. (And of course, the wasps and yellow jackets deserve a little love and to be saved, too.)
An important similarity among all of these creatures is they provide an important service to benefit our environment — they are pollinators. They do so much more than gift us with sweet honey. Without pollination, our backyard gardens wouldn’t produce tomatoes, squash, or even the beautiful berries on our shrubs, like holly. And, did you know one third of all agricultural output in the United States depends on pollinators? The produce department at your local market would be empty if it were not for bees.
While we may read about bees pollinating flowers, we don’t often get the chance to see this process up close. Again, the extra time in my garden afforded me the opportunity in 2020 to capture why we need to better care for our bees — the amount of pollen they carry from flower to flower is nothing short of amazing. Just flying with such a heavy load looks painfully difficult when you get a look up close. These bees, fully enthralled in the pollination process of the Rudbeckia and Rose of Sharon made me think of Bess, from Porgy & Bess, and the reference to ‘Happy Dust’ in the play. (I took all of these photos with my mobile phone camera – so please ask permission before you use them for your own posts.)
So, how can you take better care of bees to ensure we all have the pollinators needed to keep our world alive? Again, I’m not an apiarist, but I do have five suggestions based on the success of expanding the bee and overall pollinator population in our own New Hampshire garden. These suggestions are ideal for any where you may garden and want to better support your own pollinators.
Ditch the insecticides! If you kill the bees (aka: insects), you’re basically killing your overall environment. This was especially realized as we reduced the footprint of lawn in our garden over the past decade. Over the years, instead of replacing lawn that just couldn’t thrive without fertilizer, herbicide, and insecticide products, we filled in ‘bald’ spaces of lawn with white clover. While clover does well, and the cottontail rabbits love it, so instead of planting more, we’ve been adding thyme – the creeping perennial variety to create a beautiful lush lawn. It has a wonderful fragrance and colorful flowers. And best of all, the bees, as well as the birds absolutely love it!
Learn to love your spring dandelions. When you stop using herbicides, you’ll find more dandelions in your spring garden. This is perfect to bring in the bees. It’s the first flower of the spring season and much needed for the nutrition of bees. I have a friend who is an avid gardener, too. Until this past year, Steve has had a natural tendency to pull up the new dandelions. For a few years, when he’d visit our garden, the impulse continued, until I shared that we intentionally keep these bright yellow flowers for the bees. It was a big ‘ah-ha!’ to Steve and now, he points out to me that he also has learned to love the dandelions — because like me, he loves the bees.
Plant native perennials. Get to know your garden zone and find native perennials to plant. A Google search of native perennials and your location will give you a whole list of options. And it’s ok to change things up over time. Changing our lawn from grass to sod and back to grass, then to clover and now thyme has taken almost a decade. We still filled in areas this past autumn and I can’t wait to see how it all takes in for the 2021 gardening season.
Plant colorful annuals. While our garden is mostly perennials, my favorite summer annual flowers are zinnias. They are often overlooked and I don’t understand why. They are bright and colorful. They grow in a variety sizes and thrive in all types of garden conditions but especially LOVE full sun. And they attract the most beautiful pollinators – including bees and butterflies. I’ll never not have zinnias in my garden now. In fact, I save the seed heads from my favorite flowers each autumn to plant year after year. It you’re not a gardener, like I’m not a bee expert, you will surprise yourself with zinnias and become hooked. (I promise!) Check out Renee’s Garden Seeds to get started. I absolutely love their annual seeds – in addition to zinnias, they have special seed mixes especially to attract bees. I tried the Beekeepers Mix and it’s beautiful!
Make your garden hospitable to bees! Once you cover items 1-4, be sure to add water features to your garden. Even a birdbath helps. There are also ways to set up watering stations for bees, with shallow areas of water and rocks. Also, at the end of the gardening season, save some of your leaf pickup and pruning until spring. Give the bees a place to take cover in the winter. Another option is to check with local beekeepers in your area. If your garden is hospitable for bees, you may even be able to ‘rent’ a hive for your garden that is tended to by a professional. (This is something I’ve been thinking about for a few years now.)
I hope you’re a little more inspired now to believe in your bees as we look ahead to 2021. What’s not to love? They keep our gardens, our souls, and even our world alive. It’s time for all of us to make sure we give them a chance — which ultimately gives all of us a chance. Enjoy these additional photos of bees from my 2020 garden.
Time spent in the garden is absolutely soul-saving right now.
The truth is – quiet time in the garden is always shared with whatever Mother Nature decides to offer during any given moment on any given day. In recent weeks, we’ve had so many songbirds visit. There’s no need for music in the garden now because the bird orchestra has center stage.
The resident mocking bird starts the sunrise chorus as he calls for his mate each morning (earlier and early each day, in fact!). We also have the American Robins, Cedar Waxwings, Black Capped Chickadees, American Golden Finches, as well as the Red Winged Blackbirds, Mourning Doves, and of course a variety of sparrows.
And this year – – – we have the BLUES. The Eastern Bluebirds — the kind of blues that bring happiness and optimism.
I’ve become obsessed with these magical creatures. I thought that I’d seen them from time to time this winter while they enjoyed the holly berries outside my home office window this winter. But, honestly, I wasn’t sure they were even bluebirds since we’ve never had any nearby. On April 3, the third week our “Stay Home” order due to the Corona virus (we’re in week seven now), as I gazed out my window, I discovered a pair of bluebirds was investigating the various bird houses in my garden. None of them bluebird nest boxes, by the way.
To say this discovery was a surprise is an understatement. It’s become the biggest news coming from our garden this year – maybe this decade! About 10 years ago, I’d put out an official bluebird nesting box, along with meal worms. I even followed all the various instructions to attract them. As one of the National Wildlife Federation’s certified wildlife habitats, our garden has food (via the various native berries), water, shelter, and a place to raise their young. It was disappointing that after many years of seeking out bluebirds, the wrens and house sparrows always arrived first and took over the various nesting box and house options. After a squirrel ruined the lone bluebird box, I removed it and just appreciated ALL the other birds (cardinals, wrens, mockingbirds, hummingbirds) that instead make their homes in our garden.
Just as happiness is often elusive when you’re constantly searching for it, same goes for the beautiful bluebird. While overall home confinement because of the Covid-19 pandemic has been stressful for so many people, I’ve enjoyed the arrival of the bluebirds during this time. Having extra time to watch them through windows while inside the house and when I’m outside in the garden has been very therapeutic. Thankfully, if we must spend more time than ever at home in 2020 in New Hampshire, it’s been as the seasons changed from winter to spring.
I first spotted the bright blue male in backyard (these are my first two photos captured while leaning out of my office window). Minutes later, the female arrived – she’s also blue, but her head is grey (she’s in the photo on the right). April 3 was a cold, rainy afternoon, and this pair was exploring the area that had been raked a few days earlier, finding all the goodies an organic garden has to offer. I know many people tell us not to ‘name’ wildlife, but I just couldn’t help myself. I now call the male ‘Irving’ and the female ‘Ella’ – yes, in honor Irving Berlin’s 1926 hit song by Ella Fitzgerald – Blue Skies.
After my confirmed early April sighting, I became obsessed! I needed to brush up on my bluebird knowledge (we have the Eastern Bluebird in our region) AND hopefully capture some good photographs of these little beauties.
Bluebirds really need our help. They are one of few songbirds native to the North America and they almost became extinct in the early 1900s due to pesticides and the introduction of invasive European bird species that compete for the same nesting cavities. These competitors include House Sparrows. This is what makes the arrival of the bluebirds in my garden so surprising. While we have a wide variety of birds, for years the majority of them have been various sparrow types. They dine at the feeders I keep filled through the winter and often take over any space they think will make a good home for their offspring.
The good news is that we have reached four full weeks since the bluebirds arrived and they seem to be holding their own against the sparrows and other bird box/house interlopers. Ella chose the green house with the copper roof near the Japanese Fantail Weeping Pussy Willow after inspecting other accommodations in the area – including the older yellow house that had once been home to Carolina Wrens.
I am noticing fewer sparrows than ever this spring. I think that because our neighborhood had a lot of old trees removed last fall by the local power company. The sparrows are still here though and honestly, their hostility is the most difficult aspect of the bluebirds’ arrival. Last week was the worst of nature I’ve seen in the garden. There were vicious fights and the male bluebird was valiant in his defense of his territory.
After looking at ways to help, I put a ‘Sparrow Spooker‘ over the house that the bluebirds chose. That seems to be keeping the sparrows away. It’s simply a dowel attached to the back of the nest box that has streamers of tin foil hanging and gently brushing the roof of the box.
The bluebirds aren’t bothered by it at all – but the sparrows are… well…spooked by this homemade contraption. So that’s good news. I’m hoping that our luck of scared sparrows continues, because I’m horrified at the advice from members of the bluebird community (Kill the ‘ghost eggs’ and/or euthanize the chicks if they take over the nest!). While I understand their rationale, I still find that action hard to accept and actually implement.
Aside from putting up a the ‘Sparrow Spooker’, I’ve been letting nature just take her course in the garden. I occasionally see the bluebirds stop by the feeders – enjoying sunflower hearts and suet. (While I had plenty of suet on hand, I did splurge and purchased a few cakes with meal worms and nuts last week!) There’s a birdbath relatively close by and the bluebirds have claimed it as their own right after a late day pool party hosted by a flock of Cedar Waxwings passing through two weeks ago.
So, now that Ella and Irving have their master suite set up in our garden, we wait for the Baby Blues. I know I should check on the eggs, but I can’t because they chose a ‘house’ with a tiny back opening and I don’t want to disturb it. The good news is that Ella is in there constantly sitting on the nest. While she does that, you can often find Irving going out for a drink. (He’s also very good at delivery of takeout meals he brings back to her in the nest.)
Of all the birds I’ve seen nest on our garden, the bluebirds seem to work the hardest. They care constantly taking care of each other and their ‘home’, collecting food and chasing off predators. Based on the timing of their arrival and the assumption of when the eggs were laid based on Ella’s behavior, we expect the eggs to hatch a few days after Mother’s Day.
Given the state of the world today, where it’s even difficult to go out to shop for a Mother’s Day card or present, I think Mother Nature has out done herself by delivering the bluebirds to our garden in 2020. While I’m not counting the eggs before they hatch, I am filled with gratitude for this unexpected gift that has brought so much optimism, happiness, and hopeful anticipation during such a sad time in our world today.
“Bluebirds singing a song, nothing but bluebirds all day long.”~Irving Berlin
When the Beatles wrote ‘Get By with a Little Help from My Friends’ they never could have imagined those lyrics would be this writer’s ‘ear worm’ when she shared the decades long story of how thousands of wine corks ended up in her New Hampshire garden.
This story started back in the very early 1990s – during my first trip (of eventually many!) to the Napa Valley region of California. It was a much anticipated destination after working a long week at a technology trade show in San Francisco. Still early in my career, this was one of my first real business trips. My coworker and mentor, Claire, provided the best advice that I’ve now carried for nearly 30 years – always include some fun travel with your business travel.
Together, we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge and headed north to ‘Wine Country’. It was our reward after a grueling week of demos for an imaging and document management software startup – Keyfile Corporation. We had the coolest – and busiest – product demos because it was still a time when email was fairly new and most people had no idea about the possibilities of something called the “world wide web”.
The show was a big success for Keyfile and I was told to expect a nice bonus upon returning to NH. This information let me splurge on the weekend’s Napa/Sonoma adventure that included a lot of wine tasting/drinking and even a hot air balloon ride that landed in the Kendall Jackson Vineyard where brunch was waiting for us.
The first stop upon arriving in Napa was the V. Sattui Vineyard. This was where my wine cork collecting began – and never really ended. Corks were easy to carry and pack and provided great memories of the trip. Claire also collected some of the same corks and when we returned home, her husband hand-crafted a small trivet with the them as a souvenir gift that I still treasure today.
The corks in the trivet remind me of my first tasting at V. Sattui where I fell in love with their award winning Madeira (before I really even know what Madeira was!)
The Cuvaison winery was very small at the time of my early 90’s visit. I loved their stained glass logo – and their Chardonnay too! Cuvaison was the first wine club I joined when wineries could finally ship to the Granite State.
St. Clement remains in my mind for their beautiful front porch, overlooking vineyards for as far as the eyes could see. I learned to appreciate red wine there when I tasted their Cabernets. And, today, I frequently still purchase their wines from my local NH Liquor and Wine Outlet in Nashua.
And finally, Korbel (center cork). I learned the difference between champagne and sparkling wines while there when I was in my early 20s. (Korbel makes sparkling wines.) At the time, they also had a very comprehensive tour. (I don’t drink Korbel wines often now, but also don’t snub my nose at them, either.)
Flash forward over two decades later. During that quarter of a century, corks were saved from other trips to Napa, along with other fun events and travel where wine was enjoyed with friends and family, including DIY craft nights to make wedding centerpieces and wine cork wreaths.
They were also saved by other friends who had deep pride in their custom NH wine cellars (often closets, actually). John and Ginger were avid oenophiles…and were the first to hand over a trash bag filled with corks – it must have weighed 30 pounds. The corks sat for a few years in hopes of making more trivets. But, they eventually found their way into my garden with thousands of others saved during the same period of time.
Today, after collecting over 10,000 corks (Yes! That’s correct – 10K!), three landscaping projects have been completed across my garden. I shared information about the first one with my overview of various garden hacks a few years ago:
Project #1 – Mulch the Paper Bark Maple Tree
Twenty-five years of corks were tested as mulch, instead of using bark, around a newly planted paper bark maple in the center of the garden a few years ago. The results are both useful – the corks did hold back the weeds – and beautiful. That area of the garden sparks so many conversations now. It became – and still is – a central, fun focal point.
Well, this ‘test’ sparked a question, “Should we continue to mulch different areas of the garden with wine corks?” The answer was a resounding, “Yes!” This is where my friends jumped in…whole-heartedly.
Project #2 – Entrance to ‘My Secret Garden’
I continued to save corks over the next two years, but had barely enough to make a dent in mulching other beds. Then I attended an estate/yard sale down the street from my home. Sarah and David actually had a big box of corks for sale. I think it was under $5. So it went home with me! This was the next big push for mulching with corks. We prepped the back bed behind the garage – the one that leads to the zinnia garden.
But, the corks didn’t go nearly as far as I’d expected or needed. So, I kept looking for more. I shared ‘my plight’ to my personal Facebook page and almost immediately learned that many of my friends also saved corks – but didn’t know what to do with them. My plea for additional corks made them realize they’d been saving the corks for me!
The summer of 2017 became the era where I finished two more cork mulch projects – thanks to the help of old and new friends. I don’t have photos of everyone, but have kept a list to give everyone credit in this story.
Additional donors to my ’cause’ included friends who just dropped by – from near and far (including a surprise visit Connecticut!) to deliver corks; friends who casually opened my purse at parties and threw in corks for me to take home; and friends who mailed corks to my home – including corks from North Carolina and California via trip to the Czech Republic (Yes! International corks, too.) Local bartenders also joined in the fun and saved corks for me.
Even with all these corks, by late summer of 2017, I still needed a few more handfuls to complete the section behind the garage in.
Then I received a text from a new friend – Cindy, whom I met through my friend Marie. Like so many other friends who find themselves downsizing and have no rationale to continue saving years of corks, Cindy was packing up her home to move and came across a huge stash – her husband saved wine corks going back to the 80s. So, they were hauled up to NH from MA on a late summer afternoon for a first time get together. I finally had an over abundance of corks.
BONUS! Project #3 – Freshen Up the ‘Thinking Garden’
With many corks still unused after project #2, it was time to scour the garden for a home for the rest of them. This was a bit of a challenge due to the slope of the overall landscape. We needed a level area and the beds around the ‘Thinking Garden’ were perfect. With the removal of old bark mulch, and a little raking, the rest of the corks settled nicely into their new home.
So, that is how – over a few decades – or nearly half of my life – I’ve been able to amass enough corks, over 10,000 by some estimates, to mulch three large beds across my garden. It’s created quite the conversation piece when people visit or when they run into me while out in the Nashua community. I’m often introduced as ‘that friend who puts corks in her garden’.
While some of my friends – many of them donors to my own project – have started their own collections for their backyard or lakeside gardens, for some reason, the corks continue to migrate to my home. I never complain!
If you like this idea and don’t want to wait to have enough corks for your own landscaping projects, you can put them in potted plants. They add a nice finishing touch, and unlike other ‘mulches’ are free of insects and dirt.
It’s a clean way to add interest to your potted house and patio plants. As of now, none of the corks across my garden beds over the past few years have rotted or disintegrated. However, sometimes the birds and squirrels like to occasionally do a little rearranging of the landscaped areas.
So drink up – before all the wineries replace corks with screw tops. The wine industry will thank you and your garden will be become a fun local topic of conversation – among both oenophiles AND gardeners alike. Best of all, like wine always does, the corks, too, add so much to your friendships, both far and near.
Cheers! Salud! Prost! Nostrovia! Thank you to all of my CORK CONTRIBUTING FRIENDS, including, but not limited to: Ginger & John, Sarah & David, Cynthia & Chip, Terri & Steve, Sarah and Jeff, Lindsay & Megan, Karen G & Karen W, Kathy & Larry, Liz & Paul, Cathy & Tom, Cheryl & Bruce, Michael Timothy’s Wine Bar, Rosemarie & John, Cindy, Karen, Marie, Bobbi & Steve, Bobbi’s sister Diane, Colleen B, Diane S, Steve & Jane, and the mystery donors who occasionally leave corks on one of my porches for back steps!
It’s been a cool, rainy spring in southern New Hampshire. The perennial garden is lush and green. The annuals, including the tomatoes and zinnias are are showing quick signs of life and the weeds…..well….they are EVERYWHERE!
A few years ago, the mulched paths throughout our gardens were replaced with stone – a combination of pea stone, blue stone, and crushed rock. The goal at the time was to reduce the overall costs and time associated with mulching and weeding. Replacing mulch made from organic matter that breaks down – with various types of stone that lasts forever – added new interest to the landscape and made weed control (a little) easier.
One of the biggest challenges with these paths is weed prevention. And when that’s neglected, actual weed removal is an even bigger headache. The wet spring resulted in fewer days working in the garden during May and early June, resulting in a sudden explosion of weed seedlings throughout the stone paths. (You can see the growth in the pea stone path between the two garden areas below.)
Rather than spend hours picking through the stone to remove each tiny weed at the root, only to see them return in a few weeks, I researched some easier options or what I call ‘garden hacks’. In the past, Round-Up was used sparingly – before we knew how bad it is. We’ve also used vinegar, both straight and diluted, as well as boiling water. Truth be told, the vinegar option in the past worked, but weeds always returned.
After a little online research – as well as anecdotal conversations with friends who have tried various techniques to kill weeds, I found a vinegar-based recipe to spray on the weeds that expanded on the previous somewhat success of using vinegar. This recipe includes the use of table salt (1c) and Dawn dish detergent (1tbs) with household vinegar (1gal). The vinegar and sodium kill the weeds by dehydrating the weed, interrupting its internal cell structure. The detergent acts as a surfactant to ensure the vinegar and salt stick to the weeds. An important note here is that this mixture should only be used where you don’t want ANYTHING to grow. The salt, specifically, can wreak havoc with the structure of your soil. This is why I tried this solution to only on the rock pathways.
It WORKS….FAST! I used a watering can (special one set aside for projects like this so I it’s not mistakenly used for other purposes in the garden) and after a few days, went through over 25 gallons of vinegar and 25 cups of salt! The photo here was the first 17 gallons – the Nashua city workers who do our recycle pickup must be wondering what’s going on at my house! I’ve now found generic household vinegar and salt to use to save a little money – but continue to use Dawn.
Within an hour, the weeds – big and small started to disintegrate. Within a day, they were pretty much all together gone. They shriveling up to almost nothing and apparently blew away.
The majority of the time to complete this weeding project was spent stirring the salt to make sure it dissolved in the vinegar. It’s also important to gently stir in the Dawn at the end to avoid creating suds.
It’s been almost three weeks since I’ve ‘pickled’ the weeds in my garden paths. And so far, none have returned. I believe this is a simple, safe, inexpensive, and fast solution when used in the proper areas of your garden. The only drawback is the entire garden reeks of vinegar and salt for a day or two. (Be forwarded – you may start to crave pickles or salt & vinegar potato chips when you pickle your weeds.)
IMPORTANT NOTE: Of course, nothing is fool-proof. Two years ago, I shared thoughts about weeding the thyme that grows in the blue stone paths in my garden. Since I do want the thyme to grow in this area, the ‘pickling’ solution is not appropriate for this part of the garden. The only way to ensure I don’t have a followup to that earlier weeding sob story is a commitment to due-diligence now to pull the weeds in the thyme path as they pop up. Since I take a daily walk thru the garden, this is simple and effective, especially when I use my handy-dandy CobraHead mini weeder.
“I always think of my sins when I weed. They grow apace in the same way and are harder still to get rid of.”
~Helena Rutherfurd Ely, A Woman’s Hardy Garden, 1903
With the holiday season upon us, sometimes it’s hard to shop for your favorite gardener who can’t (or just simply won’t) articulate what they have on their secret wish list. And, even when you search online for ideas, the majority of suggested gifts for gardeners are compilations of things that retailers think every gardener will love – based on their need to move inventory.
Look no further, I’ve created a list of nine proven and tested gardening focused gifts – based on my own personal experience as a longtime gardener – to ensure you get at an ‘oooh’ and maybe even an ‘aaah’ when you choose some of them for your favorite gardener – or maybe even yourself.
1. Spear Head Spade (SHFD3) – $52
“A shovel?” you ask. Let me tell you from my personal experience – Absolutely YES! This is by far my all-time favorite gardening tool – EVER. I came across it a few years ago at the Boston Flower & Garden Show. Not your average shovel or spade, the Spear Head Spade claims it was “designed to make your toughest digging 80% easier.” That’s a pretty big promise – and I can attest that it’s absolutely true. This ‘Made in the USA’ tool is light-weight but has a very sturdy construction – the handle and blade never bends, like so many other shovels and spades.
My Spear Head Spade was put to the test this fall in my own garden. Over 25 years ago, about a dozen Japanese Barberry bushes were planted along the perimeter of my front yard, inside the fence. They are beautiful shrubs and their prickly nature tends to keep deer out of the garden. However, now that this shrub is prohibited from being sold since being classified as an invasive species, this summer we decided to remove them all. A dreaded garden chore.
I’ve had my Spear Head Spade for about five years now, and always found it helpful when digging in my root-bound garden, but kept putting off the chore of removing these shrubs. To my surprise, this spade significantly reduced the challenge of this feared gardening project. The sharp edges glided into the soil like a hot knife through butter. Had it not been for a few tap roots that were up to six inches in diameter and needed to be released with a saw, the shrubs would have lifted right out of the ground with just this spade in a matter of minutes.
While it may be difficult to gift wrap, you can be confident that this present for your favorite gardener will be treasured and they’ll thank you for years to come. Heck, you should even pick one up for yourself. Even if you’re not an avid gardener, this will probably be the last spade or shovel you’ll ever need to buy.
2. CobraHead Mini Weeder & Cultivator – $21.95
Here’s the other tool I’ve included on my list – and it’s something I’ve already been highly recommending to my own friends for the past year. While some people find the act of weeding to be therapeutic (my mom is one of those people), I find it to be one of the most boring of all gardening chores.
The challenge with weeding is that once you let that task fall by the wayside, you’re in trouble and it takes even longer to rectify your situation. Shortly after writing my Weeding Thyme story in 2017, I received a package from the CobraHead company asking me to try their new ‘mini’ tool (I’m a member of the Garden Writers Association and love when gardening focused companies share their product information with me – receiving the actual CobraHead Mini tool to try first-hand was an added bonus!)
I’d always seen the CobraHead in catalogs but never felt compelled to purchase one. Based on my experience with this tool, that was definitely a mistake. I received mine right after I’d already caught up on my biggest weeding project of the year, so it wasn’t until this spring that I was able put the CobraHead Mini to the test. I absolutely LOVE it and have other friends who have purchased their own who, like me, wish they’d had this tool sooner.
Like the Spear Head Spade, the CobraHead weeder is ‘Made in the USA’ and is extremely durable. It keeps its shape, no bending or breaking, even in the toughest of soil conditions. It’s sharp and has cut my weeding time by more than half. This gift is easier to wrap and will fit nicely into your favorite gardener’s stocking.
3. Gardenologist Tee Shirt – $24
This product is made in New Hampshire by a very cool company called Talk it Up Tees. I live in the Granite State, and love that it’s from a local company. But, I especially appreciate this shirt because it communicates everything I love about gardening.
Honestly, it’s too nice to wear while working up a sweat in the garden, but I love putting it on at the end of the day when I relax to enjoy the results of my efforts. My friend Jane gave this shirt to my mom and me last summer – she found them at a lovely little shop down the street called Amelia Rose Florist. As a recipient of this gift, I think of Jane whenever I put it on. And I love that it’s a V-neck design, offers a woman fit and is very soft cotton knit.
4. Boston & Garden Flower Show Tickets – $20
After the holiday season, as the darkness of winter finally settles in, every gardener looks forward to longer days and the first flowers of spring. While providing longer days are out of your control, you can treat your favorite gardener to an early preview of spring flowers with tickets to this year’s Boston Flower & Garden Show, taking place March 13-17, 2019.
The show features life-sized gardens that are a delight to see just before the calendar transitions to spring. The event also offers an array of lectures and seminars – as well as a gigantic marketplace. (I actually discovered and purchased the Spear Head Spade at this show in 2014.)
According to the show’s website, “This year’s show theme is “The Beauty of Balance” which is a key factor in design decisions, plant and material choices, and in cultivating the right-size garden for our lives and budgets. We explore the harmony we create within our gardens, vases and living spaces.”
If Boston is out of your travel zone, search your area for regional flower and garden shows. Most offer tickets in advance and it’s a wonderful, thoughtful gift. Here’s a list of events across the United States. Another option is to tie your visit to a flower and garden show to a travel excursion. I know that one of my bucket list shows is to attend the Chelsea Flower Show in London some day. If you have some frequent flier miles to use up soon, that event takes place in 2019 in late May.
5. Gardeners Nail Brush – $14.95
Alfred Austin said, “The glory of gardening: hands in the dirt, head in the sun, heart with nature. To nurture a garden is to feed not just on the body, but the soul.” This is so true.
But with your hands (and often feet, too!) in the dirt, a good nail brush is a gardener’s best friend. Seriously, this little self-care item is often overlooked until it’s really needed.
For years, I’d been using small plastic brushes in the shower for my hands and feet after a day of heavy gardening, but love this German-made beechwood brush with natural bristles, recently purchased from Vermont Country Store. It’s another one of those items that a gardener may not splurge on for themselves, but it’s a gift that will be appreciated – especially in the early spring after those first few days of venturing out to finally stick those hands deep into the dirt again after a long, cold winter.
6. Gardener’s Hand Recovery – $26
After a scrub down with the Gardener’s Nail Brush from the Vermont Country Store, I treat my overworked hands to Crabtree & Evelyn’s Gardeners Hand Recovery. I first tried another scent of the Hand Recovery almost 20 years ago, thinking it was a lotion. It’s not – it’s a exfoliator and moisturizer filled with shea butter and macadamia nut oils. During gardening season, use this product a few times a week on clean dry hands. After a thorough scrubbing, you simply wash the product off your hands for what seems like a miracle result. Almost better than a professional hand treatment at a spa. (I sometimes use it on my feet, too!)
The scent of this product is clean and fresh, so it’s perfect for both women and men. Even better, it’s created without mineral oil, parabens, or lauryl sulfates. Treat your gardening friends to the gift of hand recovery – it’s easy to wrap or slip into a stocking – and you can make it an even more thoughtful gift by adding a nail brush to go with it.
7. Corinthian Bells Windchimes – $12.99 – $776.98
This is my favorite luxury gift for gardeners. There are several sets of these bells of varying sizes across my garden. The 65″ black bells hang from a tree in the back garden. My mother refers to them as the church bells (the garden is our church). There’s nothing more calming than the soothing sounds of these chimes. Sometimes it’s just a simple plink here and there. On more windy days, the sounds are symphonic.
Don’t settle for just any chime – a little investment in the quality of QMT Windchimes‘ Corinthian Bells – made in Vermont is worth every penny. If you’re not shopping for the holidays, keep this gift in mind for house warming gifts.
8. Dirt! Specifically Coast of Maine Organic Products (Gift Certificates!)
If you’ve read my previous posts, you already know that I write a lot about dirt (actually soil). After all, what’s a garden without good soil? I’ve shared my ‘dirt’ experiments where Coast of Maine Organic Products was the undisputed winner. And this past summer, I wrote about this company’s products when they supported a Science Cafe event we put together in Nashua on the Science of Gardening. (I am just a happy customer/fan, and don’t work for the company, so my recommendation here is straight from the heart!)
While bags of soil are difficult to wrap as a gift, you can find a local retailer for this product line to ensure that your favorite gardener is ready to start digging come springtime. They have an excellent seed starter mix, and I swear by two other specific products: 1) the Quoddy Lobster Compost (we dressed all of our beds with this blend this past fall to prepare our garden for 2019.) 2. Stonington Blend (I use this for my herbs and lettuce containers and have had constant success throughout the season.) Their fertilizers are excellent too. Visit my friends at the Nashua Farmer’s Exchange to either pick up a gift certificate for spring time purchases – or go all out and gift wrap your dirt – I dare you!
9. Seeds! Hudson Valley Seed Company – $3.95 for most packages
What’s a garden without seeds? The challenge is to find seeds that match the skill and needs of your gardening recipient. Some seeds, like parsley and rosemary take a long time to get established, which can frustrate a beginning gardener. For gift giving, go that extra step and give seeds that make an impact – and offer something really unique.
I discovered the Hudson Valley Seed Company at the Boston Flower & Garden Show in 2014. (I’m seeing a theme through this story that the Boston show has introduced me to a lot of my favorite gardening products and solutions.) And in 2016 was given an interesting variety of these seeds as a Birthday gift.
Recently, I was thrilled to find them at a great little shop in Merrimack, NH – Barn in Bloom. I picked up some varieties of basil seeds last spring. These seeds are packaged as gorgeous works of art. That to me, is a gift within a gift. Better yet, they have seed selections you won’t find at your typical garden center or big box store. Check out the new releases for 2019 from the Hudson Valley Seed Company – and impress your art loving gardening gift recipients. (I’ll admit, I save the packages from the seeds I receive, as well as buy, and hang them in my gardening shed simply to keep the beautiful artwork.)
So there you go, nine creative, but practical gifts for your favorite gardeners. While this list may not be as popular as the annual release of Oprah’s favorite gifts, I can assure you that any of these gift ideas will be appreciated by gardeners at any level.
I’d love to know about your favorite all-time gardening gifts. Share your thoughts with a comment.
“Since you get more joy out of giving joy to others, you should put a great deal of thought into the happiness you are able to give.” ~Eleanor Roosevelt
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.)
Cardinal Flower aka: Lobelia Cardinalis
Lucifer Flower, aka: Sword Flower, aka: Crocosmia. This is new this year and big hit!
Lucifer Flower, aka: Sword Flower, aka: Crocosmia. This is new this year and big hit!
Here’s another of the Lucifer Flower, with St Francis (Patron Saint of Animals)
One of the few annual flowers – Fuschia. This always attracts the hummingbirds late summer.
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.
Alabama Crimson Honeysuckle. Resting on a leaf while enjoying sweet nectar.
Looks closely to see this bird’s tongue sample the new buds of the Endless Summer Hydrangea.
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
The photos in this post were all taken in my garden in the summers of 2017 and 2018 and belong to the owner of this post. If you’d like to use any of these photos, please request permission via a comment on this post.
You can have the most artistic ambition and grandest plan for your garden, but the reality is a ‘green thumb’ really doesn’t happen by accident. While William Kent once said, “All gardening is landscape painting,” a beautiful, bountiful garden filled with annuals, perennials, and vegetables is actually a work of art and science.
The Science Cafe Nashua recently hosted it’s July gathering at the Riverwalk Cafe in Downtown Nashua (New Hampshire) to discuss why it’s important for gardeners to understand how science impacts their gardening aspirations. The discussion on “The Art and Science of Gardening” while free to attend, was a ‘sell-out’ with all 80+ seats at the cafe filled with gardeners ranging from novice beginners who participate in local community gardens driven by GrowNashua to expert master gardeners with beautifully designed landscapes that are worthy of Fine Gardening magazine.
While the midsummer topic was compelling, it was the strong lineup of panelists who brought people to the cafe during the midst of a week-long July heatwave. For two-full hours we participated in a Q&A session with gardening experts including:
The Art & Science of Gardening Panelists during the July 11, 2018 Science Cafe Nashua. (L-R: Gene Harrington, Cameron Bonsey, Isabelle Burke, Dave McConville, Paul Shea)
The lively discussion covered a full range of gardening topics, including how to control blight (specifically in tomatoes and peppers) to why we see so many rabbits in the Nashua area, and what’s the best way to ‘feed’ soil.
Here are a few of my big ‘ah-has’ from the panelists who did an excellent job at explaining how science impacts gardening. (If you’re reading this blog after attending this Science Cafe Nashua session, feel free to share what you learned with a comment.)
Smokers – You can attract blight! Nightshade plants like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant are in the same plant family that include tobacco. Paul Shea explained that nightshades are very susceptible to blight – it’s a big issue and can wipe out entire tobacco farms.
With the smaller scale of a backyard vegetable garden, blight is typically spread when leaves touch contaminated soil. Helpful hints to avoid blight included keeping plant leaves trimmed well above the soil line and watering at the bottom of the plant to drive moisture directly into the soil versus via leaves.
Here’s what really surprised me. Gardeners who smoke can be more prone to finding blight on their plants – the two reasons are that some gardeners leave cigarette butts (remember tobacco attracts blight) in their gardens and the nicotine from tobacco sticks to fingers and spreads to plants when touching, pruning, and picking. This nicotine residue of tobacco attracts blight. So, gardeners who smoke now have another reason to stop their habit if they want a bountiful harvest.
Bees don’t like the red flowers. A question was asked why bees haven’t returned to one participant’s garden this year. After some discussion with Isabelle Burke, we learned that the person seeing fewer bees this year changed their garden color scheme and has almost all red flowering plants and very few purple and yellow flowers, which are favorites of bees. This surprised me for a few reasons – since pollinators include hummingbirds, and they like red, I just assumed that all pollinators, including bees, were attracted to that color. I also didn’t realize bees are drawn to color. I thought they were only attracted to the scent of flowers.
Nashua is being overrun by rabbits. Gene Harrington told us that rabbit populations have an 11 year cycle and our region appears to be in year seven or eight of that cycle. So we should be seeing fewer bunnies in coming years. He shared that he’s heard over the past few years from more customers who are seeing rabbits and, of course, they reach out to Gene to find solutions to their rabbit problems. Apparently, the best way to control rabbit damage is to put up fencing/barriers around the plants that they find delicious to eat. Another option is to plant things rabbits don’t find so delicious. In my case, the rabbits in my neighborhood love the clover that I’ve been planting as an alternative to grass, so I will just keep buying clover seed to replace it. (But I will confess, I actually enjoy seeing bunnies hop through the garden and just hope that the experience of another Science Cafe participant doesn’t happen while I’m watching – his garden bunny became lunch for a red-tailed hawk – which are also prevalent in our region. I guess everyone needs to eat.)
Soil lives and breathes – we need to treat it well. Cameron Bonsey talked a lot about soil. He likened the work of creating soil blends at Coast of Maine to the craft brewery movement in New Hampshire. He explained that their employees experiment with different mixes for different purposes. I specifically asked him about their Stonington Blend that I blogged about late last year. He explained that soil is all about biology and something things plants respond differently to different mixes of nitrogen, castings, etc. He also talked about the importance of mulch and how it feeds soil. Cameron quipped that “all the organic matter under the mulch is eating and greeting – there’s a great party going on under there.” This is why it’s better to mulch with a compost-based product and not cheap wood chips that take forever to break down and don’t provide nutrients back into soil. (Hearing this made me feel good as we stopped spreading bark chips in our garden because of this and started to mulch with compost instead.)
GMOs are not a natural evolution. There was a question about the scientific aspect versus personal feelings on the surge of GMOs (genetically modified organisms). This seemed to be a sensitive topic to both the person asking the question, as well to the panelists asked for their input. Dave McConville, the panel’s permaculture expert shared that GMOs are not a natural evolution, while not speaking for or against them. I urge you to learn more about permaculture at Dave’s website – here’s a teaser, “Although permaculture is first and foremost a design process, it is also a philosophy, a life style and a framework for making decisions. Permaculture gives us a toolkit with a set of ethics and principles, design processes and proven strategies to help us design a better culture.”
Ultimately, I learned that true gardeners – no matter how long we’ve been digging this hobby – are always eager to learn from one another and to share our own experiences, including the successes and failures. What worked this year, might not work next year – and there’s often a cause that someone learned before us. For example the gardener who wants to see more bees left the Science Cafe with the the information not to plant all red flowers next year and perhaps add a little more lavender – a favorite of bees.
Speaking of lavender, here are a few more photos from the July 2018 Science Cafe Nashua at the Riverwalk Cafe. Let’s start with the top two photos that include the fabulous “Gardener’s Gimlet” made with local lavender syrup that was offered as Riverwalk’s special craft cocktail of the evening in honor of the Science Cafe event (the woman in the top right photo with the gimlet is Jane Ruddock, co-owner of Riverwalk and quite the expert gardener herself). The other photos are of the full house of gardeners asking questions and sharing ideas and experiences.
“There are no gardening mistakes, only experiments.”
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.)
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.
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.
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!)