It is mid September and the garden is looking more tattered and aged than usual. The above picture shows the dried and burned grass in the sunny portion of the garden. The foreground freedom grass still looks quite green but it is really best seen from a distance. September is the month of natural decline as plants complete their life cycles. Days are getting noticeably shorter but this September has been very hot. Not hot if you live in Austin, TX but hot for New England where air conditioning is still not in every home. Until today, we have had no significant rainfall since mid-August. This garden and the gardener are dependent on well water. A well ties one a bit more closely to nature. Choices must be made regarding water usage. Shower the body or the garden? Drink a cool glass of water or quench the thirst of a garden full of plants? With hundreds of feet of borders, a vegetable garden and a week of vacation, Mother Nature has chosen to remind me of the necessity of water. Those thin, large leaved plants with shallow roots are the first to show the signs of water stress. Hydrangeas and astilbe are limp and crispy. I cringe when I look at the withered foliage in the garden but here and there in the garden there are a few pristine perennials. One small and rather insignificant perennial herb shows no sign of stress. You might think it is the wooly leaved lamb's ear or the gray foliaged yarrows but even those plants have turned limp or browned. The Queen of the Garden this September is the herb rue, Ruta graveolens. I have only one plant and it has gotten no attention during the dry spell. Its foliage is blue and smooth and just looking at this plant brings down the heat. It is cool to the eye. It is an interesting herb which is native to the Balkans where the climate is hot and dry. Rue has been used medicinally for centuries and was said to have been ingested by Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo to improve their eyesight. It can also cause violent vomiting and gastric distress and the oils from this plant can blister the skin. It is also quite bitter. I will stick to using it in the garden. I have read that soft tip cuttings taken in the fall and stuck in moist sand will root during the winter. I may just have to increase my stock of this plant and give this a try. It would make a lovely border plant as it grows in an upright, rounded form. Rue has long been a symbol of bitterness and regret but I have no regrets in planting this cool beauty in the garden. In fact, I know I need a few more of them.
Has a gardening season ever flown by as fast as this one? No, that's not a pumpkin, yet. It is a tomato and the tomatoes tell the tale. They ripen during the hot days of August here in my garden and August is the beginning of the end. The tomato vines look a bit dismal with the yellowing and spotting of leaves (no, I am not going to show you) but they are laden with fruit and the fruit is perfect. For some reason I planted these 30 vines much too close together this year. I don't know what happened and can only offer the explanation that the snow did not leave the garden until mid-April which condensed the season's spring cleanup and rattled the brain of the head gardener. I plant mostly heirloom tomatoes starting them from seed in April. The vines are about six feet tall. Well they would be if the cages made by the Equipment Manager were six feet tall. As it is, they are tumbling and spilling down the sides of the cages. It is a jungle out there. A divine smelling jungle. I try to plant a variety of different tomatoes each year although there are favorites.
'Mortgage Lifter' is one which I won't do without. It is delightfully acidic and huge. One slice for each BLT sandwich. I have come to adore 'Pink Berkeley' for its dark green and red striped skin and great taste.
This year I have grown 'Copia' for the first time and it is also quite large and golden orange. It has a surprising 'punch' of flavor and very large fruit. The early tomatoes, 'Early Wonder' and 'Sioux' throw out a few small tomatoes in July but the bulk always ripens right along with the late tomatoes.
One other stand out favorite is 'Indigo Blue Beauty' which has a mantle of shading on its shoulders. It is a medium sized tomato with excellent flavor.
Paler than pale, 'White Queen', looks a bit insipid and drab. It has very soft skin, almost mushy but I decided I must at least taste it and was pleasantly surprised with the sharp, pungency of its flesh. There is consolation to hot days, dry weather and withering foliage when you have a table full of tomatoes. I believe that tomato flavor results from the 'terroir' of the soil in which the tomatoes are grown, much like wine. I have tried 'Brandywine' and they have had little flavor although it is the heirloom with the best press agent. That said, the worst tasting home grown tomato is always better than the best tasting grocery store tomato. The dark and cold days of January will come all too soon but here, for now it is tomato soup, tomato salad, tomato heaven.
August has brought with it high heat and lethargy. I have a new appreciation for those who garden in warm and down right hot areas of this country and the world. There is nothing that saps the strength like heat and humidity. It is time for porch swings, adirondack chairs and tall, sweaty glasses of cool drinks. Or, one could do piece work. The walkway to the front door runs right through a patch of ledge. A jackhammer was required to level the area for the brick walk. On either side of this area there is the still existing ledge and pockets which are too shallow for planting resulting in a design dilemma. For years I have had decorative rock in these spots. Beach stones are pretty and smooth and solved the problem of planting in these spots but they also got dirty and weeds were a problem. They grow pretty much anywhere they can grab hold. Another solution was necessary. A friend of mine is building a new patio and she mentioned that she wants some mosaic laid in the hardscaping. She is artistic and will probably do it herself. She told me this some time ago. That thought steeped and settled and finally percolated to the top. I would do a mosaic of the beach pebbles on the right side of the walkway. It is a small area and a manageable project. So, I picked up some polymeric sand at the local stone supply company. You can read about polymeric sand here. It hardens once water is applied to it making joints stronger. It is fairly impermeable which means there is little option for weed seeds to germinate. I then cleaned out the existing rocks, washed them and settled down on a very warm summer afternoon to create. I laid a two inch base of poly sand in which to set the stones. Once the stones formed the pattern, I added more sand to the top and swept it between the joints. Then, water was applied. Two hours later, the job was done. Not perfect but very pleasing to my eye.
Now the question is 'should I attempt the other side'? It is a larger area and a bigger project. I am undecided. I would love your input.
Somehow gardening tasks took me away from the blog in June and July. Well, gardening tasks and other pursuits. The gardening tasks have paid off with dividends in the form of sweet corn, squash, kale, lettuce and ripening tomatoes. These all feed the body but the smell of garden phlox sure feeds the soul. I have found that the newer cultivars of phlox have much less scent than those garden 'volunteers'. These rogue phlox are always a bland, to my eyes, pinkish purple but there is nothing bland about their scent. The heavy air of an August night carries this fragrance on the breath of a warm evening. The mornings arrive with the creak of cicadas and the twitter of birds. The sultry air of summer entices the butterflies out to romp with the flowers. I am seeing a plethora of butterflies this year although no monarchs have arrived as of yet.The long border is full of color and there is the look of reckless abandon there although this gardener wields the pruners often and with precision. In the vegetable garden there are also a few volunteers and this onion which was left to its own pursuits is sporting a jaunty cap as it readies itself for its flowering dance. These summer days with the garden in full bloom and fruit are the gardener's reward for cultivating life. A bit of deadheading, a keen eye on the opportunistic weeds and a good book are all that is required on a warm summer afternoon. The scent of phlox is free.
Yes, the lusty month of May. May, full of visible energy as leaves and flowers unfurl. Flowers are lusty. They are all about pollination and fertilization besides being just plain beautiful. May always makes me think of that song....you know the one Julie Andrews sings in 'Camelot'. You can listen to that song here. We are having another 'slow' spring. It has been quite cool which is great for flowers and busy gardeners. The snowdrops which can bloom in late February had to wait this year due to the abundant snow still left on the ground until April. They have finally finished blooming and now is a great time to move them around. I have done a bit of that but with other spring tasks taking precedence, it may not get done. Oh well. Such is the gardener's life. There is always something left undone.
The forsythia are just blooming which signifies that the soil has warmed to around 50F. Corydalis seems to have taken over the entry garden but since it is a spring ephemeral it will disappear shortly. I will just admire the orchid blooms and be thankful that it is such a good re-seeder. The river of daffodils is blooming and this lovely salmon cupped daffodil is elegant in an arrangement or just left in the garden. I have found that for the best show, yellow wins the day. You can see the yellow portion of the river of daffodils from very far away. Magnolia 'Elizabeth' is shedding her flower sheath and wearing it more as a stole rather than a full winter jacket. I expect she will open her blooms in the next few days. She seems to have shrugged off the cold of winter and has many flower buds this year. I think I have found a good spot for the Viola odorata. This tiny, fragrant violet is nestled under the branches of the cotoneaster and seems to be spreading just a bit. Not far from the door, it is easy to see and reminds me to bend down and take a whiff. If you stop by and see me lying prone on the lawn with my face in the flowers, I know you will understand. Well, you will after you have experienced the soft, flowery fragrance of this tiny little violet. Spring is unfurling slowly here and that is much better for blooms and this gardener's disposition. May is oh, so welcome here.
This morning, the birds are singing, the grass is greening and the scilla are in full, blue bloom. Scilla siberica, to be exact. This little flowering bulb reaches about 3" in height in my garden and it naturalizes beautifully. I have heard the word 'invasive' in reference to scilla but I prefer 'naturalize'. It does spread. That can be a positive. What makes one plant invasive and another a desired naturalizer? Well, this one has beautiful flowers of bright blue and they attract honeybees. It might crowd out grass but in my 'Freedom Lawn' that is just desirable. I do think its best use is as a naturalized ground cover. There is nothing as blue as the electric, black light blue of the scilla flower en masse. It blooms about the time of the daffodils and what could be better than that complement of yellow to enrich the tone of the blue or vice versa? Scilla is planted in the fall. Plan now to order some if you want your own carpet of blue. This is not a native bulb but then few are native to the USA. It is very hardy and it grows in Zones 4-8. The bulb contains a toxic substance so the deer do not eat it. That is a win around here. The bees however do love it. This plant is the first to bloom on which I see the honeybees. And, the honeybees have blue knees. Blue knees on the honeybees is a sight to see. They work the flowers as bees do and they end up with a nice cap of blue on their pollen baskets. I have long noticed the blue pollen but it was Kris Green, Interpretive Horticulurist and blog writer at Blithewold, who told me to look for the blue bee's knees. Persistence paid off. Yesterday was warm and windy and the bees were busy...well one bee was busy. I spent quite a while trying to get a shot of this busy bee. They move quickly from flower to flower wasting no time at all. I guess that is the definition of 'busy'. On my part, watching the bee was time well spent. I think there might be a children's story in that title, The Bee's Knees, what do you think?
The snow has left the gardens but there are still a couple of mounds in the drive from the winter snowplowing. No matter since now the garden work can begin. The crocus are up and taking turns debuting their outfits. The snowdrops have almost finished blooming which means that in spite of all the raking to be done, they need to be moved around right after the flowers fade. I have found that this is an easy transition time for them and they spread quite readily when given a helping hand. I just lift the larger clumps and carefully pull apart the bulbs. It is then an easy matter to pop them into the empty garden spots. Someday there will be rivers and pools of snowdrops. It is coming. The winter aconites are doing a bit of yoga with this salute to the sun. Theirs is the first bright yellow to appear, usually well before the daffodils which are just beginning to show color here I do see a bit of the tete a tete flowers pushing through one of the fallen, yet to be cut back, grasses. One expects bulbs in the spring but the first of the herbaceous perennials to bloom are the hellebores. This hellebore is a lovely rose veined variety, Helleborus orientalis 'Apricot Blush'. I do have some of the dark flowered hellebores but I find that they are lost among the richness of the soil so it will be these lighter ones which I will plant from now on. In the middle of the week I discovered that I am not the only one who loves the Iris 'Katherine Hodgkin'.
Her cool, blue beauty attracted another admirer. In the dark of night either the deer or the rabbits decided to eat the blooms. The deer spray is sitting right there on the step. Live and learn. At least I got a couple of days of joy from them. Another task which has been checked off the spring list is that of starting the tomato seeds. I know it seems late since so many of you are in the warmth already but here it will take six weeks to get them to just the right size so they suffer no root stifling. I have planted them early in the past and have found that to do so results in the extra step of potting them on to a larger sized container. April 15th is the target date for planting the seeds here. I was one day off. The seedlings will be planted in the garden at the end of May. Tomatoes love warm soil so there is no use planting them any earlier. One other task which lightens the load for this gardener is the annual burning of the grasses. I can only really burn these by the fishpond as they are well away from other plantings. Usually this is done around St. Patrick's Day but this year I could not even get near them and they were lying under the snow. You can see how flat they are. These are Miscanthus s. 'Gracillimus' and Miscanthus sinenesis var. purpurascens. They are in excess of six feet tall by the time the fall plumes appear.I did get out the hose and the rake just in case there were any escaping embers but from start to finish, the grasses burn hot in under a minute. The ash sweetens the soil and the area is transformed. The fish didn't seem to mind at all. It was a pretty good week. I hope yours was filled with spring blooms and enjoyable garden tasks.
On this cool spring day in New England, I invite you to travel with me to a garden which overlooks the village of Alfriston in the Cuckmere Valley located in the eastern portion of the South Downs in Great Britain. I had the great fortune to visit this garden in the summer of '13. It was one of many lovely gardens which I saw that trip. It is an exceptional garden. Designed by the noted Landscape Architect, Ian Kitson, and owned by Anne & Geoff Shaw it is a garden which has been sculpted out of the hillside. It has a maturity which belies its youth. The Shaw's purchased the rundown house in 2006 and renovated it. The garden was developed and planted through 2012 when a copse of trees was added for the Queen's Jubilee. Don't you just love the Brits? They so embrace a celebration. The Shaws had two directives for the architect. One was to make the garden wildlife friendly and the other was that it should be colorful. The final garden, if a garden is ever final, is so much more than those two components. The approach is breathtaking. The walk from the parking area, down the lane to the drive was on an incline but there was no watching one's feet. Rolling fields laced with wildflowers framed the view of the valley along the lane. Trees and shrubs frame the view from the lower part of the garden. Once through the small courtyard and down a series of steps, much of the garden is revealed. A nautilus shaped sunken patio with a limestone base is one of the focal points of the garden. Seated in this garden, the breeze is reduced but the view is not. This is a patio with sections which contain quiet, gentle spots for conversation, cakes, and company. The sinuous walls are made of flint and the top of the wall is planted with sedums and sempervivums. Low growing campanula was in bloom at the time of our visit and it formed purple puddles surrounding the seating area. There is much to see both up close and in the distance. Following the curve of the patio a lower natural pool invites one down the path to yet another seating area which looks back toward the house and the pond. I would bet that the lounge chairs are often turned around to take in the view of the valley. Who could resist? On one side of the pond garden there is a meadow garden. Almost every garden I saw on this trip included a meadow garden. They are all the rage and they are a wildlife magnet. Bees and butterflies joined us on our walk through this garden and many of our group paused to sit on this inviting bench. There is a walkway winding through the daisies but it is cleverly hidden by the flowers and meadow grasses. On the other side of the naturalistic pond, herbaceous borders lead the way to the bottom of the property. This bench provides yet another opportunity to sit and enjoy the shady beauty of the lower garden. At the bottom of the garden, the view is once more revealed just over the raised vegetable beds. To feed the gardens, there are, of course, composting bins.Tucked off in the corner these were filled to overflowing.
The garden paths loop around the garden from top to bottom so there is never a need to retrace one's steps although it was necessary to do so in order to truly appreciate the paths, plantings and views throughout this space.
The picture above is of the right side of the pond garden. This is a garden for strolling, sitting and enjoying the views. It was not easy to leave it. Many thanks to Anne and Geoff Shaw for opening their garden to us. It is on the NGS register and is open to the public certain days of the year. You can check here for more information on open dates. I do hope you have the opportunity to someday see this garden on your own.
On Monday, March 30, 2015, it is snowing yet again and this March morning has all the steel gray warmth of an early January day. I did miss most of the snow of this remarkable winter but upon returning to New England in mid-March I have been privileged to witness the effects of the many snow storms of 2015. There is still a foot of snow on the ground in many places and the driveway has five foot piles of snow from the plow. The temperatures are quite chilly with the current temp of around 32F. There will be no raking in March. There will most probably be no garden cleanup until well into April. The days are getting much longer though and the sun is quite warm despite the cool air temperatures. The evidence that spring has arrived is here but it is slim evidence. Much of the garden is still covered but those southerly exposures are clear. The snow is receding ever so slowly leaving in its wake, sticks, mud, packed leaves and even a flower or two. Why didn't I plant five hundred crocus in this area in the back? Nature gives us the best cues if we care to look for them. I do have some Eranthis hyemalis aka winter aconite, blooming in the back and it really only takes a glimpse of this bright yellow to lighten one's spirit. I am marking the calendar right now to order some bulbs for fall planting. Next spring when the snow recedes, a bright carpet of gold will take its place. Gold and maybe some orange. I feel better already.
I am feeling a little guilty. Well a lot guilty actually. New England is experiencing record snowfall this winter. It is the winter of the endless storms. Some people pick up and go to Florida to escape the harsh New England winters. My Mom actually loves Florida and she is there right now but I love a place with a cooler climate. A climate in winter where temperatures are usually between 40F and 70F. A climate where, if you owned a plot of land, you could actually garden all year long. Since the EM can telecommute and my skills are limited to the New England gardening cycle, we decided to pack up and head for Sonoma, CA. We have enjoyed this area on several previous visits. Most of those visits were in December and we visited two summers ago in July when the rolling hills of Sonoma were brown. Now, in February, they are vivid green. The grape vines traverse the landscape adding perfect geometry to flowing fields. Back home, the icicles reach from roof to ground. Here the rosemary thrives and flowers and bees dance in their blossoms. The camellias and hellebores are also providing a dance floor for the bees right along with the daffodils. I love New England. It is home and this winter it has been harsh. With any luck, I will get to experience spring twice this year. As I said, I am feeling a little guilty.