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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Great Gardening Expectations

My Early Gardening Influences

Long before HGTV, the only Gardening program I remember on television was ‘The Victory Garden’ on PBS.

I learned so much in the 1990s from one of the show’s early hosts, Roger Swain. I always trusted his insight about growing vegetable gardens in New England.  I also learned just as much from ‘Chef Marian’ (Morash),  who shared recipes and tips on how to prepare and cook the vegetables featured during each program.

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For over 20 years,  Marian Morash’s  ‘The Victory Garden Cookbook’ has been my ‘go-to’ guide for various ways to prepare fresh vegetables. It’s one of my all-time favorite cookbooks, originally published by Alfred A Knopf, Inc in 1982 and retailed for $39.95. It’s truly endured the test of time and continues to be worth the initial investment.  (By the way, this book was republished in 2010 by Knopf Publishing and can be ordered for $37.95 from my friend Dan’s indie bookstore – Water Street Books – in Exeter, NH. Tell Dan I sent you!)

 

I also feel the need to mention other gardening influences – since I know my mom is a regular reader of this blog. She and my grandfather will always be noted as my earliest gardening mentors. It was always amazing to me that Mom had as much – if not more – knowledge as Roger Swain — she just didn’t have a TV show to validate her expertise 25+ years ago. Today, she is THE ‘go-to’ woman among our networks of friends to identify just about any plant or flower native to New England – as well as southern Florida. I’ve learned a lot from her, but still need to refer to guides to confirm some plant name suspicions.

Fast Forward to 2017

With a well-established garden, I still read magazines and books, as well as attend events like the annual Boston Flower Show, for new ideas and insight on gardening trends.  Two topics have been of special interest to me over the past few years:

1) Saving seeds from year to year;  and

2) Dealing with an invasion of weeds, without resorting to the use of harmful herbicides.

It was though the Nashua Public Library knew of my two special focus areas. In early January,  I was delighted to read about an upcoming seminar about ‘Seeds and Weeds’ FEATURING Roger Swain! It didn’t think twice about signing up and requested two spaces, so I could bring Mom, too.

Nearly 100 Nashua area gardeners schlepped to the Nashua Public Library on a very cold February night for the free seminar. Honestly, it was such a treat to be out, talking with other like-minded people about the hope of spring and gardening in the middle of winter. The timing was perfect since by February 16 we were just starting to notice the days were growing noticeably longer —  darkness had started to set in around 5:30pm instead of 4:30pm,

We arrived at the Library and Swain was already at the front of the room chatting with early arrivals. When the clock struck 7pm, Swain removed his sweater vest to reveal his trademark red suspenders and spent the next hour telling his stories about gardening in New England – with a special emphasis on better understanding weeds and how to control them.

The Truth about Weeds 

The big take away for me (and for Mom, too!) included the need to use the right tools for weeding AND being out in the garden, early in the morning to remove newly emerging weeds – not late in the day as I tend to do.  Just for the record, my mom always claimed there are thousands  of very old seeds hiding deep within soil — everywhere. She’s always been against the spring ritual of rototilling. Her argument has been that the process of rototilling results in more weeds and in the end, more work.  Of course, Swain confirmed her theory and once again she’s been right all of these years. Swain suggested long handled hoes that you sweep across the ground (while standing up) to gently pull up newly emerged weeds. Not one to complain about skipping the back-breaking kneeling that I associate with weeding, it looks like the 2017 budget for ‘Preen’ will be spent, instead, on some fancy new hoes this year!

I also appreciated Swain’s comments about organic gardening. He talked about “PMO Gardening” (Pretty Much Organic Gardening).  I feel vindicated with this thought. Over the past decade, I’ve been especially careful of the seeds, plants, and the various soils and composts brought into the garden, especially for the things we eat.  I have a compost tumbler, but the truth is, it takes a few years to get really good quality compost from this gadget I bought over 10 years ago.  Honestly, it’s one of the most disappointing items I’ve ever purchased for the garden – but it’s here and we use. I like the idea of re-purposing things back into use – for example, I’ve started to shred leaves in the fall and use them as mulch in the garden beds vs. buying a hundred bags to have the leaves carried to the landfill (Nashua has a wonderful soft waste curbside collection service, but I’d prefer to let the leaves turn into mulch in my own yard). When I had the limestone steps replaced on my porch with granite, the mason was kind enough to cut the old limestone into squares to use as garden stepping stones, saving a trip to the landfill.  So, from now on, I’ll always remember that as long as I try my best to be a good steward of nature, it’s acceptable to be a “PMO Gardener” and to even sometimes use an herbicide, but only when used sparingly and absolutely necessary. (Thanks for taking away all the guilt, Mr. Swain!) 

Seeds Bring Great Expectations

Once Swain finished his stories, the event transitioned to a Community Seed Swap across the hall from the seminar. The event organizers encouraged gardeners to bring seeds to share with one another.  I took this request seriously and was thrilled to prepare 70 packages for other local gardeners to take home.

 

I brought a variety of seeds from perennials and annuals in my own garden including: Zinnias that originally started in the Community Gardens at Greeley Park in Nashua a few years ago; Jewel-toned Morning Glories; Baptisia aka: False Indigo; and Rudbeckia Maxima.

It was a relaxing (and hopeful!) process in early February to separate the seeds and create the packages with photos and information from my own garden.  I even felt well-rewarded when I left the Seed Swap part of the evening’s program. I brought home seeds donated for the event by the High-Mowing Seed Company. I look forward to planting them to grow mixed greens and herbs, as well as some interesting varieties of kale starting in mid-May.

While spring arrived on the calendar yesterday, the view of the garden from my office window  today (where I write this blog) is telling me Mother Nature has not yet received the ‘2017 Change of Seasons Memo’. We still have a thick, crunchy blanket of snow from last week’s Stella Blizzard – but I do see improvement as the St. Francis statue (on the bottom left) was covered with snow up to just under his chin only a few days ago. I’m so glad to have these little packages of seeds to give me hope and ‘Great Expectations’ on a just another late March day.

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“It was one of those March days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold: when it is summer in the light, and winter in the shade.”

       ~Charles Dickens, Great Expectations


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Find the Seed at the Bottom of Your Heart…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~ Shigenori Kameoka

 

 


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Keep Your Face to the Sunshine…

There is always so much hope when seeds are planted  in late spring.

Especially sunflower seeds.

We look forward to their golden petals all summer, while at the same time, know that their arrival signals the transition to shorter days and the autumn season.

The New England weather challenged backyard gardeners all summer long as severe to extreme drought conditions gripped the region. (We lost our little bit of lawn — again — yes, that ‘Sad Sod Situation’ continues to be a challenge – but we’ll discuss that in another post someday.)

Beginning in  June, we watched the sunflowers struggle.  The dozen or so inch-high seedlings were a much sought after ‘garden buffet’ delicacy for this year’s over abundance of chipmunks and squirrels. In the end, we were able to grow a TWO eight foot tall sunflowers that became a stunning, late early autumn focal point, adding much-needed color to the garden. (Even the hydrangea failed to bloom due to the challenge of changing climate conditions.)

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It was amazing to watch the single large flower on each stem slowly open and come to life over the course of four days.

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Day 1 – Ready to Burst

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Day 2 – Time to Wake Up

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Day 3 – Almost There

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Day 4 – Hello Sunshine!

HELLO SUNSHINE!

Once each flower opened, the bees quickly began their pollination process.  It was amazing to watch the bumble bees AND honey bees over the course of about 10 days navigate around and around the flowers’ centers to pollinate and bring the sunflower seeds to life.

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As the seed head grew bigger and heavier each day, I was looking forward to harvesting some of the seeds to save for the 2017 garden. The plan was to leave the majority of the seeds for the songbirds to enjoy.

THEN THIS HAPPENED!

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A squirrel used a nearby trellis as a ladder to reach the seeds.  Fresh sunflower seeds became another menu item in the backyard garden buffet. Delicious!

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The seed head continued to swell for a few more days and approximately three weeks after the flower first began to show its sunny face, its head bowed deeply toward the earth as autumn set in.  By day 30, the squirrel came back, hungry and in full force, to strip the seeds row by row – creating an interesting pattern.

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Second to peonies, sunflowers have always been one of my favorite flowers (lavender would round out the top three.)  After enjoying hundreds of sunflowers from self-sown seeds in the Greeley Park Community Gardens a few years ago, it was gratifying to grow sunflowers in our own backyard garden this summer. Perhaps in 2017, we’ll double our crop …. and raise four of them!

This feeling of optimism that sunflowers bring must be part of the story behind the Helen Keller quote that inspired me to share the story of our 2016 sunflower success:

“Keep your face to the sunshine and you cannot see the shadows. 

 It’s what the sunflowers do.” ~Helen Keller