Most of the winter has been quite dark here in southern New England. That is, until the second week of February when a snowstorm dropped over a foot of snow. It is amazing what a difference snow makes to the light of winter. December and January were gloomy. All was brown, rust and gray with watery, limpid light. Snow transformed the landscape but the snow of February is doomed more quickly than the snow of December. The sun is getting stronger and the temperatures can and did fluctuate wildly. The back field gave way from white to bare in a matter of days. With an average February temperature of 40ºF here, February is a bridge to the coming warmth of spring. March will be ten degrees warmer than February and just perfect for working outside without breaking a sweat or battling bugs. That is the expected but expectations are not always realized. This past weekend we had three days of over 60º weather. Three days is quite enough. The initial warmth is welcome even while it is unsettling. Unsettling because gardeners know that plant dormancy is necessary for their survival. If a plant breaks dormancy in February here in my garden, it is often doomed. Cold weather and frost will put an end to those green bits of new growth on most plants. There are exceptions of course. Eranthis, winter aconite, shrugs off the cold. It just closes up at night and when morning arrives opens its sunny petals. The early crocus are also a hardy bunch. Those which are leaning against the base of the foundation open first and cooler temperatures keep the blooms happy much longer. Snowdrops are often the first of the little bulbs to bloom here but they are a bit later than the aconites this year. Hellebores with their thick leathery leaves and flowers are really the 'honey badger' of all flowers. Nothing bothers them. Not the deer nor the cold. They bloom starting in December depending on the weather. Their blooms will handle a heavy load of snow. They shrug it off multiple times with none of the exasperation of the winter weary gardener. I will thank Mother Nature for a spring preview and also thank her for returning us to more normal, bracing, late winter temperatures.
It hung from the ragged vine with blue shoulders shining in the late fall light. It wasn't the only one. I picked several. They were firm but unripe.I picked them all before tossing the vines and pulling out the stakes. These tomatoes, while not in my garden, were ones I had started from seed and given to my daughter, Emily. Indigo Blue Beauty. That about sums it up. For an heirloom tomato it is quite prolific. It has dark navy/black shoulders at a young age and as it matures they ripen to deep aubergine while the bottom of the tomato turns bright red.
Two weeks ago I went to my daughter's to help her with fall bulb planting and garden tidying. She lives about 20 miles east of me in the city of Cranston. Emily has created a small, suburban garden complete with a bit of lawn for play, containers for fun, vegetables for sustenance and a party pavilion. The party pavilion is transformed into a carport for winter. This garden is an oasis for a busy life. She has incorporated a few vegetables into her tiny plot of land. Tomatoes, eggplant, squash and one year she planted corn behind the shed. Only a dozen stalks but they were lovely if not overly productive. This year there were two or three tomato plants which I started from seed and gave to her. By the time November rolled around, bulb planting time, the vines were spent but there was still fruit hanging from the vines. I picked four firm tomatoes. Emily had had enough so I took them home to ripen on the counter. One by one three of the four tomatoes succumbed to rot. The fourth ripened. One tomato is really not enough to share especially when the quality is unknown so I made the executive decision to eat it for lunch. It is said that the worst garden tomato is much more flavorful than the best store bought tomato. I believe that is true. This little beauty was divine. The flesh was still quite firm when it ripened and it resisted the knife just a bit as I sliced it for the plate. I had little expectation of any true garden tomato flavor. The first bite was a revelation. I was transported back to the last warm days of summer as I tasted the tang and tartness only a well tended, garden fresh, hand picked tomato can possess. I wish there had been more to share but it is December, DECEMBER. As Christmas Carols played softly in the background, I ate that last tomato with a bit of burrata cheese, some olives and flatbread. Gardening is regional and in New England, the growing season is shorter than in many areas of the country and the world. Some people love to break the record for having the first tomato of the season. I am happy to have this last tomato of the season in New England, in December. The best things in life truly are free.
When an artist comes to visit the gardening disappointments of the past summer disappear. An artist brings with her a unique perspective when she views a garden. All of us have a bit of an artist within us but one who hones and practices her craft professionally sees the land, the landscape, the layout, and the individual plants, both foliage and flowers, with a trained eye. Recently Ellen Hoverkamp came to visit.
Ellen shared her floral scans, tips, advice and knowledge recently with my garden club at our October meeting. Ellen was a captivating speaker. Since she was traveling I offered her a room in my home for the night and she prevailed. We sat up into the night chatting and getting to know one another and the next morning she walked with me in the garden. An October New England garden is not at peak. There are bits and pieces of interest here and there and sometimes there is fall color but in general, plants are waning as is the gardener's enthusiasm. This year was a particularly difficult gardening season. Gypsy moth caterpillars ravaged trees and plants in June. July came and went with little rain to help regenerate foliage. August came and so did the deer with their new offspring. Gibbs has not yet learned that deer are not welcome here within the garden limits and he does little to discourage them. This gardener threw her hands in the air and went golfing-the game did not improve but the gardener's spirits did. It was into this neglected garden that Ellen and I walked. She with clippers and a pail and me with a camera. It is a revelation to see one's own garden through someone else's eyes. Especially those of Ellen who has such an original talent. Her art is beautiful. She collaborated with well known horticulturist and garden communicator, Ken Druse, on a wonderful book, Natural Companions which features her floral scans and Ken's prose. I know Ken only as many other professional and amateur gardeners know him- through his many award winning books and his radio show, Real Dirt. Ellen snipped and we chatted. Ellen has visited many wonderful gardens and has cutting privileges in quite a few of them. I was honored that she cut from my garden and, of course I hope she will come back to visit when the garden is beautiful in June. These are the scans she made from my garden tidbits. Through her work, I was able to see the beauty that is still quite visible in the garden if only one knows where to look. Through her visit, I gained a new friend. Thank you, Ellen.
Note: Ellen's works are available on her website and on Red Bubble under Ellen Hoverkamp. She also writes a blog and has a list of her upcoming lectures and gallery sales both available as well on her website. Click on the purple text to visit them.
A speedy Bloom Day post is in order as there is much to do in the garden today and the weather is cooperating. It is cool, as September should be, and sunny at the moment. It is also still dry but no matter. The dahlias, cannas and fall blooming crocus are all blooming. The grass is still green and the scent of ripening grapes and decaying foliage is in the air.
I hope this Bloom Day finds your garden full and satisfying. Thanks to Carol of May Dreams for hosting yet another Bloom Day.
Two weeks ago there was fragrance in the air. It was subtle yet distinct. Sweet but not cloying. Heady and beckoning. I walked into the garden to discover its source. Fragrance can be as elusive as a dream memory and it took just a few steps to realize that fragrance was coming from the corn patch. This sweet scent comes along for a few days each summer as the corn flowers mature and release their pollen. Corn flowers are much more subtle than phlox, dahlia or daylily flowers. Corn is a monoecious plant which means that there are both male and female flowers on the corn plant. The female flowers are aptly named 'silk' which is wrapped around the fertilized corn and peeled back when we shuck the corn. The male flowers are at the top of the cornstalk and are called 'tassels' and no male ever smelled sweeter than the pollen produced by these tassels. Tassels shed pollen for just a few days and once the pollen is shed it is viable for only a few minutes. When it lands on the silk below, it germinates within minutes. It is another miracle of Mother Nature. I am not a corn expert but as a gardener, I can appreciate the process. As I walked toward the corn patch I could hear the hum of the bees, honeybees. Happy, happy honeybees were busy with the corn tassels. They seemed to appreciate the sweet smell as much as I did. Perhaps even more since it is life giving for them. It seems that everyone can appreciate the line 'Stop and smell the roses' but how many of us can appreciate and actually stop to enjoy the smell of sweet corn in a field? I wish this for everyone, everywhere.
I missed Bloom Day in July due to challenging gardening conditions. Pests, drought, pests. No bother, the season moves along at its own pace. August has, so far, been a month of high humidity, heat and at least some rain. Welcome rain. Every plant looks better with moisture. Weeds included. The warmth brings out the butterflies and today's Bloom Day is sunny, dry and a bit more comfortable with humidity levels down from 90%. Deer do eat hydrangeas but they left me a few blooms on the H. paniculata 'Vanilla Strawberry' and H. paniculata 'Limelight'. Both have unique qualities. The Vanilla Strawberry has dark stems and is shown here with coneflower. The 'Limelight' is incredibly floriferous. The true blue of Ceratostigma is cool relief for these hot days and this butterfly finds it palatable as well. In August, it is usually the annuals which take center stage. Here, the dahlias are beginning to bloom. This one is 'Cafe au Lait' and it is quite popular. I find it adequate, preferring bright colors to its bland, cream tone. Portulaca provides a brilliant crown for 'Athena' who hangs on the garden gate. Cannas are also blooming and add a tropical look to this summer garden. There is more in bloom but tasks await. Thank you for visiting. A big thank you to Carol at May Dreams for hosting yet another Bloom Day. I hope to visit gardens around the country via her Bloom Day Blog list.
Bloom Day, this June, is serious business. It looks like spring in the garden with no leaves on the trees. June is usually the time of prolific blooms in my garden. This year is different. A plaque of gypsy moth caterpillars has descended upon this region and the only good news is frass. Frass is the correct term for insect excrement which is high in nitrogen. I have uttered the 'other' word for frass many times in the past few weeks, frass is falling fast. The oak leaves are gone, the maple leaves are being eaten now, the white pines are succumbing fast and everything in the garden is covered with crawling caterpillars. I will leave the caterpillar post for another time as this is Bloom Day. Forgive the pictures. They all include, yes, caterpillars. I am thankful for a few blooms.
Last Friday was a very warm day for late April. One of those unusual spring days which warms the ground more than most. I worked outside just a bit cleaning out garden beds all the while thinking that the ground underfoot was moving ever so slightly from those pushing roots. Roots of grass, perennials and shrubs. Roots pushing outward from their base in search of moisture and nutrients. All in readiness for a burst of shoots and top growth. Friday night a gentle rain fell. I could hear it in the background of my sleep. It had been dry for several days and I know that I let out an audible sigh of relief for the emerging spring plants. I could almost hear the plants echo that sigh. Saturday morning the garden was greener and more visibly alive than the previous day. The nubs of Solomon's Seal lengthened by inches overnight. Honestly, they did. The daffodils bent a bit with the moisture but the sturdy tulips just embraced the shower. The freedom lawn colored up and violets and ajuga burst into bloom. Yes, I have a ragged lawn which serves as a suitable ground cover for setting off the borders and allowing a bit of play. It also keeps the woods at bay. Lawn is an easy groundcover if you don't care about perfection. Dandelions are a cheery sight in the lawn as well and one can actually eat dandelion greens. I do admire the perfection of grass on a golf course but the freedom lawn works for me. I would rather spend time on the details of the borders. The little grape hyacinth 'Valerie Finnis' loves to party with the Heuchera 'Caramel'. Prunus x 'Hally Jolivette' is covered with blooms and this cherry is a must for any garden. It is a shrub but can be trained to either a standard or multi-stemmed tree. It will stay in bloom for 2-3 weeks depending on the daily temperatures. It also blooms well when it is quite a young shrub. I have had this one in the garden for over ten years and while it is listed as having a maximum height of 10', this one is well over ten feet tall. The long, sunny border is emerging. It needs weeding and a sharp edge to bring it into shape but the colors and textures can be appreciated even with a bit of disarray. I would so love to see a gentle rain a couple times per week. It doesn't hurt to make a wish.
Nine years ago I wrote my first blog post. Easter was late that year but spring was in full swing. Much has changed in nine years. The garden continues to evolve, the gardener's pace has slowed down a bit and the weather, never a sure thing here in New England, continues to challenge the spirit. Many perennials are emerging as are the leaves of some of the early flowering shrubs. The lilacs are well into green buds. The scene is set for a nice slow spring but, no. A good six to eight inches of snow arrived on Monday and Tuesday the low temperature was 15F. The snow cover served the perennials well providing inches of insulation but there is cold damage on the lilac leaves and flowers. The magnolia stellata was just beginning to open. Time will tell if the unopened buds will drop or unfurl. No matter, most plants will survive. Heavy rains arrived on Wednesday to wash all that snow away. We are back to April weather this morning. Garden cleanup can continue and the lawn continues to brighten to a rich shade of green. The first flowers of spring which include dandelions are again visible. Spring is such an active time in the garden for plants, wildlife, birds and the gardener. Gibbs, the new Job Supervisor in the form of a chocolate lab, is growing big and strong. He seems to have a bit of a penchant for digging which will have to be curbed a bit. At five months old, he has wrapped himself around our hearts even on those rainy days when he whines to go outside seemingly oblivious to the heavy rain. He has helped to once again establish the routine of walking around the garden each morning, coffee in hand. I check out the plants and he checks out all those scents on the ground. All is right with the world. Thank you for reading this blog. Many of you have been reading for nine years. Blogging has provided a outlet for sharing my garden with a big world. I plan to continue as the garden is ever changing.
The ornamental grasses are looking quite ragged by the time spring rolls around. Most people cut them down which is laborious unless you possess a weed whacker with a blade. I have several clumps of grass and these by the fish pond stand alone, away from any structures or other plants so my preferred method of maintenance is to burn them.
Burning reduces the grasses to black char very quickly. From start to finish might take a minute and a half or so. Wednesday is often 'pizza night' here with the neighbors and because burning grasses are such a spectacle it is a plus to have an audience when they are burned. This was Gibbs' first official Burning of the Grasses and he was on a leash since he is a bit ignorant at his young age of the power of fire.
Controlled burns were a part of my youth. The local farmers would burn the fields to sweeten the soil and rejuvenate the fields. That vivid green arising from blackened fields seemed almost miraculous to me when I was small.
These grasses provide a screen at the back of the fish pond and give a sense of enclosure as they mature.
If you burn your grasses it is important to take a bit of care and have a hose, a rake and some people on hand just in case. The fire is incredibly, impossibly hot and it is fast. I cannot imagine what a prairie fire must be like and I always have a renewed respect for firemen after experiencing the heat of the flames generated by the dry grasses.
Here is the grass garden behind the pond after the burn. Neat and tidy with minimal effort, a night of entertainment and the added benefit of sweet char.