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a place of your own

the fullness of spring

I got out the door this morning and it smelled like summer. Most of the trees haven’t even started to bloom yet, but the perennials, faithful to internal calendars only they understand, decided to fill up at full speed.

In only a few days the garden sprouted flowers and foliage all at the same time, rushing to get to mature size as fast as it can. Read more…

how to make honey

First, you have to be a bee. I was curious, so I looked up how bees make honey and wished I never found out. The process requires two bee stomachs, saliva and prolonged mastication of the nectar to make it gooey. We’re basically enjoying twice regurgitated bee spit mixture. Read more…

garden planning for spring

Try following the four concepts below to make your garden planning experience more rewarding than ever. Your garden is a living entity and as such, always changing. That is part of its charm and its gift to the gardener.

Work with your garden

1. Define lacking areas. What are their characteristics? Too shady? Too dry? Hard to reach for regular maintenance? Soil deficiencies? Focus on improving them or adding plants that tolerate those conditions.
2. How much time do you have to spend in your garden? Plan on installing systems that provide continuous care with minimum of effort and cost (drip hose, xeriscaping, rain barrels, composting areas, etc.)
3. Observe what perennials are thriving in your garden. That will tell you a lot about the soil and draining conditions you have and offer potential for those plants to adjust very well in sparser areas of your garden. Plan on dividing mature plants that are overgrown to fill in the less fortunate spots.
4. Spend some time learning your sun paths. Find out when the sun reaches a certain area, not only throughout the day, but all year long. The sun’s elevation changes and growing vegetation make conditions in the same spot quite different between spring, summer and fall: you may be able to grow columbines and roses in the same flower bed. Pay extra attention to places in the shade, they offer great potential for cool summer retreats. White flowers are particularly striking in the shade.
5. Plan for naturally low-maintenance flower beds. A full flower bed won’t allow any space for weeds. Ground covers and low growing companion plants will look beautiful and reduce the need for mulching and watering. If the combinations are perennial, so much the better!

Define a recognizable style

1. Create and emphasize a theme for your garden. Focus all your future efforts into accenting that theme. Start with the classics: formal, romantic, cottage, rose garden, herb garden, potager. Figure out which one speaks to you and adapt the general structure to fit your conditions. Having a theme gives you a canvas to build upon and a very good idea about the kind of plants you could add.
2. Look at your garden from many angles and define visual lines, actual paths, points that focus your interest, blocks of color, surprises.
3. Make sure to have areas that can be enjoyed both from a distance and close up.

Add structure

1. Essentials:
o Hardscape – retaining walls, trellises, water basins, paving, arbors to grow climbers on, permanent benches, sun shading.
o Color accents – planting, garden furniture, sculpture.
o Access – flagstone pathways, stepping stones, grass paths. You want to be able to walk through your garden when it rains without getting covered in mud from head to toe.
2. Consider vertical planting and containers, especially if you don’t have a lot of land. Put extra effort in the areas where you spend most of your time. Make sure to include fragrant plants.
3. Add habitat for wildlife: bird baths, squirrel feeders, brush for shelter, bat boxes. Plant butterfly and hummingbird plants like dill, geranium and hibiscus.
4. Create private nooks for personal retreat: a little bench under a tree, sheltered from view by a planting of yews or a trellis of climbing roses.
5. Make your borders reachable, no more than five feet wide, with access from both sides. Areas that are difficult to reach will not be maintained or enjoyed.
6. If you have room, plant a cutting garden, if not sprinkle your flower beds with your cut flower favorites.
7. Add water in any form.

Your wish list

1. Make a wish list of plants you always wanted but never got. Sort through the reasons why and get any plants on the list that you can.
2. Would you like to add specific plants: medicinal, edibles, or fruit trees?
3. If you want a gazebo, a pergola or an arbor, stop dreaming about it and finally get it. It seems more complicated than it actually is.
4. Make your garden an inviting place. Add fruit and berries, plant butterfly and bee favorites, don’t forget scented herbs, have places to sit with a book, an Ipad or a Kindle, design little ledges to lay down a cup of coffee, etc.

the sleeping garden

I walk through the sleeping garden, footsteps muffled by the freshly fallen snow, watching the clean white reflect a rosy and baby blue watercolor sky. Everything is quieter  now, a natural silent chamber. There is a delicate softness and peace in this cool pastel surrounding, like a very old photograph, dulled by the passing of time, of things long gone.

Here and there an earthy seed head or a golden plume of grass moves gently with the breeze, and birds sift snow from the tree leaves above looking for shelter. There are no scents, just the unmistakable chill that fills the nostrils and makes them stick.

It almost seems like nature tries to make up for the cold by providing the most spectacular sky displays, the colder, the more colorful. Since today was not exceedingly cold, we are going with soft pastels. The really frigid days are the ones that sing bright orange, red and violet sunsets.

The sleeping stillness of the garden imposes a weird reverence, one almost feels like whispering for no reason. Snow keeps falling gently, quieting my thoughts.

gingerbread house

Families have old traditions. Families make new traditions. This is a new tradition for our family, instituted by my daughter. Every Christmas we need to have a gingerbread house next to the Christmas tree, whether we’re home or not.

This year we have the enhanced version that also features Santa, the reindeer and the sleigh. Some of the productions are better than others (this is not one of the best, since we were in a hurry to put it together, and kind of tired).

Ok, so it’s not exactly competition quality, for the gingerbread house masters out there, but I thought I’d share.

indian summer

Surreal orange-violet sunsets and a gentle warm breeze under cotton candy skies. Colorful rainbows and mellow hazy air enveloping you with the softness of a whisper. The calendar says mid-November and the thermometer says 71 degrees.

You bask in the warm mellow breeze slightly confused after the freezing night and look around at the turning leaves, most of which the trees already shed. It’s “Indian Summer”, please enjoy responsibly.

A phenomenon most common on the East Coast and Ohio Valley, Indian Summer is a period of unusually warm weather in mid November (November 11-20  to be precise, according to the Farmer’s Almanac).

It is normally  defined by the following characteristics:

Occurance: Mid-November

Temperatures: high sixties/low seventies during the day, close to or below freezing at night

Air movement: very mellow warm breeze or no air movement at all, hazy atmosphere, clear crisp nights

Duration: at least 3 days.

In order for an unusually warm period to be called Indian Summer, it must occur after at least one hard frost, after the leaves have turned.

It looks like we are going to enjoy it this year at least until Sunday November 14, according to the weather forecast.

I just wanted to share with you this picture (taken today) of my faithful and resilient pot marigolds:

indiansummer

fall equinox

The September mid-morning light is almost surreal, stronger than the eyes can bear, but tired and oblique at the same time. There are only two months of the year that can boast perfectly blue skies: April and September.

I feel the inherent melancholy of this harmonious symphony of colors: bright red maple trees projecting over the cloudless blue. There is a humid scent of fallen leaves in the air, graceful leaves blown back and forth by uncoordinated wind gusts, little rabbits and squirrels are instinctively hurried by the approach of winter.

I’m not going to lie, autumn makes me sad. If it weren’t for the pumpkins, candy, little colorful buckets and costumes, turkeys and cranberry sauce, I’d probably start languishing right now. The aforementioned items will postpone the solar deficiency syndrome til January, when alas, no pumpkins!

For now, though, the bright and cheery oranges, rusts and yellows smile from every rack in front of the grocery store and from every fall planting. While going for a morning walk I spy a whole patch of perennial mums in a garden (I know they are perennials, because I saw them last year), which strengthens me in the conviction that they really exist (one would be inclined to believe them to be mythical things like the white unicorn or the Dodo bird). If you managed to have them come back to life the following year, you are a better gardener than me and I salute you.

So, in order not to indulge in completely unjustified existential angst, I turn my sight to harvest. And that would make anybody feel better: bushels of apples and grapes, pumpkins and the most wonderfully fragrant butternut squash. Did you ever notice the heavenly honey scent of butternut squash harvested in season?

Very colorful dry beans (see “Vegetable art”), bright red corn-like kernels of the magnolia fruit (pictures coming soon), sweet intoxicating aroma of overripe grapes, shy crocuses piercing dried up dirt, translucent white currants in the sunlight, bright blue flowered ground cover. One morning you wake up and open the door and the harsh, unmistakable chill of winter burns your nostrils. Not yet, not yet…

the art of waiting

You walk along the garden path one morning, look around and wonder where did it all come from. Naturally, you planted them all, or nearly all, with a few pleasant surprises here and there of self-sown perennials that sprung out from under annual growies before you got to notice them. Otherwise, though, the tall, stately beauties surrounding you are always taking you by surprise, because the first lesson in humility that is served to obstinate gardeners is the unwillingness of living things to develop according to your plans. They have their own internal clocks, their own environmental sensitivities and a completely different relationship with time than you.

So, those lupines that you planted and thought dead sprung up on you two years later, after you planted cosmos over them the following year, which self-seeded, and now both plants are gracefully mixing in a fluff of stringy and palmed leaves, taking over an entire portion of your garden that you were intending for a completely different purpose this year. Or the snapdragons whose seeds you spread evenly over an area, but they decided to all come out bundled together to the left of the patch, leaving the rest of the dirt barren. Or the lily-of-the-valley that you tried to start from roots in the same spot for three years in a row, and now it decided to come out all at the same time and completely take over.

Maybe you were planning, but your garden begs to differ. And when the garden and the gardener have different opinions, the garden usually wins.

The struggling plant that you moved because you needed the space and didn’t feel like throwing away now thrives in its new location with a vigor beyond expectations. Sun loving plants keep blooming in the shade behind the house, in a place that, of course, is not a showy feature of your garden. After a while, the oddities and surprises of your garden become familiar and dear to you, like an old friend’s little idiosyncrasies warm up your heart after you haven’t seen her in a while. A sense of peace descends upon the wiser gardener, a sense of acceptance that in this dialogue with nature, nature has something to say back to you.

If those plants that you failed to recognize when you transferred them outdoors and planted them at the front of the flower bed turned out to be tomatoes, or if the sun garden you neatly organized according to height and flowering season exploded into a jumbled jungle of healthy growth, or if the miniature zinnias developed into four foot tall tree-like structures, or if all those tens of berries you saw on your strawberry plants were gone the second they turned slightly ripe because squirrels and rabbits believed in sharing, enjoy it, allow it, embrace it.

If gardening only taught me one thing it would be the art of waiting. If you have enough patience and time, things kinda turn out the way you planned, sort of, eventually.

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were you gonna eat that?

All joy and excitement, the kids came to get me to show me a surprise. Through the picture window, all three of us looked out at the cute little cotton tail rabbit peacefully and contentedly feasting on our carrots. Looking at the flower and vegetable beds I can see that it has been doing a very thorough job of digging up and consuming all things bulb and root that it was able to find, with special emphasis on the fragrant lilies. The kids watch the bunny with wonder while I’m mentally reviewing all the ways to prepare rabbit stew. Half the garden gone, half more to go, the bunny moved methodically to the next plant. My brain simmering with aggravation, I get out to chase it away despite protests. It looks at me, outraged, and reluctantly departs. I feel guilty.

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sun, shade and the caprices of weather

What is good weather? That is a very good question for a gardener. Some places are blessed with conditions that make plants thrive despite complete lack of interest or effort. People who for years tried unsuccessfully to grow a garden watch with incredulous envy out of their car windows the never ending wild meadows just exploding with colorful fragrant blooms.

Every frustrated gardener, at least at one point in his life, made negative comments regarding his garden’s poor soil, inadequate precipitation, amount of insolation, plant material quality and other people’s better luck. Sometimes they are right. The seasoned veteran will preach that there is no garden that can not be made beautiful with enough patience, knowledge and correction of the offending faults.

The truth is that sometimes it just works, for no definable reason. You plant things together and they support and shade each other, they exchange vital nutrients and they layer their leaves to shade their intertwined roots and protect the water in the soil. They naturally keep the weeds away, because under their dense leaf umbrella, not even weeds have a chance to develop. A hierarchy develops with time and each plant gets just the right amount of sunlight and water. The whole plant group becomes a system in equilibrium, self sustaining almost (and in some cases it really is).  This is the image one sees in established gardens, a conglomerate of such systems, in perfect harmony with each other, looking like they have been there forever. Once the plants stake their ground in your garden, good luck trying to uproot them. But why would you try to disturb a working element in such a sensitive biological system?

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