The Winter of Three Degrees Part II of III

Raiders of the Winter Garden

Yup, that’s what they are. Come out in the cold to sample Green Plate Specials and hunker down for the winter as if they owned the place. Ah, those plants with tender leaves, hors d’oeuvres with a tang served up by Kurume and Gumpo azaleas, delicacies prized by these raiders of the garden.

The plants looked spikey even before the first flake of snow: Gawky, leafless sticks, especially if they were growing along the routes of the raiders. Negative focal points in the garden. (Can you have negative focal points in a garden? We did!)

A spikey azalea beginning to recover

The damage was considerable. In fact, it was so considerable that I took pictures, which now seem to be missing, probably because a plant that has been eaten tends to become invisible, which tends to hamper positive identification. So, take it on trust, there were a lot of photos that simply showed tangle.

On the bright side, these same plants were spared the misery of a long cold winter.

This Gumpo went brown in March. We held our breaths, as did everyone in our area as azaleas browned out

Spoiler alert: As of this writing, only one plant that we know of was totally lost to browsing.

Still, chewing damage was so pervasive I assumed initially that it came from deer. But the diagonal cuts on branches were clean, missing the ragged, torn edges indicative of deer browse. Maybe deer and rabbits had negotiated a temporary treaty and deer went elsewhere for tender kibbles.

Now I can understand why Farmer MacGregor had a certain hostility to these cute, furry creatures

Tall rabbits were the how and why of these Phyllis Diller plants. Not that they (the rabbits) are genetically tall. They simply stretch themselves skinny as a dime so they can reach to unsurpassed heights, even to the tops of, say, deutzia gracilis.

Yes, rabbits like deutzia, especially tender new transplants still naïve about the ways of rabbit raiders. But I wonder why these rabbits were still stretching for deutzia and azaleas, when concessions of just-out hosta were offering grab-and-go meals almost everywhere in the garden. (Maybe a need for more fiber in the diet? Is there a fiber RDA for rabbits?)

This young deutzia ‘Chardonnay Pearls’ once eaten down by rabbits, was spared this year. They preferred the older shrub that only  laughed the rabbits off

In their defense, rabbits can be very polite diners. They take small, dainty bites, even when they are ripping a plant apart.

Like a dutiful, efficient, organized, first-things-first gardener (as I know you all are, too), I began to cut away the sticks to shape the bushes and make room for healthy new growth that had begun to sprout from below.

At least they ignored the camellias. Here the rain has pounded a bloom into the ground

Then I had an epiphany.  Had I been in some alcoholic haze? My diligent tidying was not deterring the raiders. Instead, it was inviting more rabbit raids. Come and get it, varmints, new bush opened up, easy pickins’, guaranteed no sticks, lots of tender new leaves on the plate, all in shiny bright neon.

Let me tell you, I sobered up fast. Now on high alert, driven by pure naked impulse, I designed high-tech azalea barricades using cut-down joepyeweed sticks, which just happened to be at hand.

I gambled on confusing the raiders by tucking broken stalks like spears into the stick bushes, which, by the way, were beginning to look pretty good, except that now they were even more sticky and would require more tending later in the season to remove the stick barricade that was now junking up the growing sticks. Do you think these barricades could ever be positive focal points?

And then suddenly the Gumpos turned green

Then again, maybe I had been too hasty. After I sprinkled “aromatic” Holly Tone on the azaleas to coax them along, the rabbits seemed to disappear. Spraying Liquid Fence would have been more sensible, but who was being sensible at this point. Next winter, I vowed, I’ll toss wads of pine straw among azalea branches and top them off with a garnish of Hollytone. Let’s see how you like pine straw in with your azalea leaves, you, you, you. . .rabbits!

Despite browsing, on the whole, azaleas weathered the winter with grace. Rabbits ignored the large-leaved southern indica and Rutherford hybrids even though they remained green all winter. May-blooming gumpos that the raiders missed were badly browned, but they have now pumped out new green leaves with energy that astonishes. Do I spot flower buds, too?

Kurume azalea ‘Coral Bells’, a reliably early bloomer, seen here in a protected corner, for the most part eluded rabbits and the deep freeze

Who has not lately complained about copious rain! (Which complaints will no doubt be replaced next summer with groans about terrible heat and extended “drought.”)

Have you noticed that the plants are not complaining? Ever opportunistic, they are sucking up a power drink of nutrients that would otherwise be locked in dry soil. And so we are being treated to a lovely, green world in April.

Here a southern indica ‘George Tabor’ shows a purple sport. Note the considerable new green growth

Possibly too green? This energetic growth is outstripping some of our azalea blooms, hiding them so the full “wow” effect of bright blossoms is subdued. Reminds me of why we gave up on Rhododendron catawbiense with its stunning lavender balls that cover walls of healthy shrubs in the cool-climate forests of western North Carolina.  Warm spring temperatures here confused their internal schedules and prompted plants to put out new leaves before the blooms arrived. That meant the “wow” effect was a dud.

Such a nitpicking curmudgeon you are! Can’t you just sit on a bench and enjoy the great wide World of Azaleas in April? Okay. Okay. I’ll set a spell.

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The Winter of Three Degrees Part I of III

Or, Exposure Exposure Exposure. . .And More

I can already hear our northern friends laughing. You can’t be wringing your hands over Three Degrees! Three posts devoted to a cold winter! You Southern Softies! Don’t expect us to feel sorry for you. Here in New England we are soldiers on the front lines of frigid.

All right, all right, give us some slack. We Zone 8A-ers expect, no deserve, mild winters, to make up for summer scorchers. It’s our God Given Southern Right to complain. Three degrees and wind, snow and rain are enough grist for days of garden gossip in our sheltered southern towns.

Days of sepia and lead, unless it was snowing. The beech will hold its leaves till spring

Full disclosure: At the risk of precipitating more gleeful chortles, the three degrees in discussion was recorded in our garden some time around what is traditionally the coldest part of the day, the wee hours before sunrise. The record was quickly wiped clean by sunshine on that day in February.

For a while we thought we’d dodged the bullet. Through it all, plants seemed — well — alive. Only we who were looking out the window were shivering with cabin fever.

They’re still looking pretty good in February, but another reality took over in March

In the past, our evergreens have remained perky during freezes. Smug and happy as a novice gardener, I used to think we’d won the frozen-in-time race. Imagine my disappointment when, as soon as the ice melted and the towel thrown off, my favorites would turn brown or go naked.

This year, no such thing happened. Ah hah, we (emphasis on “we”) are finally raising exceptionally strong, self-reliant plants.

We lived in la la land until early March. That was when plants stopped pretending and started dropping leaves.

Osmanthus fragrans dropped so many leaves we raked for days

We’ve often chafed at our native trees for being water hogs, nutrient hogs, and sun hogs. (Remember, trees always win in any tiff with shrubs.) Early spring, while we were mourning losses of some signature plants but relieved that the garden had survived, scattered reports of pervasive, withering, casualties dismayed us. Why the difference?

Would we ever want to lose our woods? For better or worse, no

Did those woods we maligned instead act as benign counterpane to protect our plants? Maybe it was time we thanked our perimeter of native trees for blocking winter sun and wind and moderating water in the soil and casting a crusty blanket of leaves over the landscape.

The Norfolk Botanical Garden is about 40 miles north as the crow flies, subject to the same weather, or worse, though the influence of city concrete probably gives them an edge. Much of their landscaping is under scattered pines and hardwoods.

Camellias, azaleas, evergreens, flowering shrubs and hydrangeas seemed to survive the winter with little incident. Yet camellias in area gardens were so affected the Virginia Camellia Society had to cancel their show and sale. Had the woodlands in the botanical garden cast a benign canopy over most of their plantings?

Exception: A bank of old, exposed azaleas at the Gardens were sparse of leaves and flowers. How come theirs looked better than ours?

Even so, plants that face east can suffer. Bright winter sun that breaks the cold of night gives no quarter to stunned plants. Buds can be blasted and leaves burned.

One winter, our native, buxom magnolia Virginiana facing full into an eastern sunrise turned into a skeleton. We spent a lot of time discussing the take-down of this once handsome tree-now-turned eyesore. Fortunately, as can be the wont with gardeners, our frenzied debate lapsed into idle chatter. It took a year, but the tree eventually recovered.

Our gumpo azaleas exposed to bright morning sun

But exposure isn’t all. Sometimes, despite our best intentions, a plant endures a series of insults. Shuffles and shifts that we barely notice may in fact weaken a plant’s reserves. Signs of distress can be subtle. How many times have I missed or misinterpreted clues, picking up on them only after the consequences became dire! Humbles ya, doesn’t it!

Causes? Unless they’re obvious, we can only back-figure. Here’s a possible list of insults I’ve come across (or inflicted) in thirty years of gardening.

Over zealous pruning at the wrong time
Fertilizing at the wrong time
Changes in drainage
Changes in sun or shade

Dry seasons.
Wet seasons.
Damaged roots — from wayward shovels, imperfect drainage
Plants still potbound despite appropriate teasing

Competition from other plants
Fall clean-up that leaves soil surface raw.
Vented air from a heating/ac unit.
Loss of a buddy.

I’ll never forget how a thriving native male American holly fretted for years after it lost its loblolly-pine neighbor. Finally it learned to cope with the double whammy of too much water at its roots and too much sun on its leaves.

Despite having its block knocked off by a tornado years ago, this tulip tree is a lusty grower, snatching resources from smaller plants

Old age can be a cause, but that is relative. Digs that are too rich can grow a plant to death. The opposite can kill a plant, too. Goldilocks conditions probably extend life, but who knows what they are in our individual gardens.

And then there is the X factor — X because we don’t know enough about what goes on under the ground or, for that matter, above the ground — that can influence survival or failure. However thoughtful we may be in figuring a plant’s needs — cracking the books, studying the site — it’s the doggonedest perplexingest puzzle, but a cosseted plant can languish, while another plant that gets short shrift survives.

How in the world did this seedling crabapple ever make it with no care and all that competition?

Sometimes it is just an old plant’s time. The plant is weary of hauling sap up and down its pipes, weary of sending out negative vibes to bugs, weary of accommodating the weather (though it may still put on a show of bloom). If you look, you can see the signs, especially in old, tall trees, but mostly we are not looking.

When you put it all together, plants are environmentally challenged pretty much all year, from winter freezes to summer’s dry heat, with brief respites in spring and fall. Though, on the whole, plants are probably more weather-resilient than we are.

Given half a chance plants come back year after year with treats for us and the birds — native blueberries and red cedar

Curiously, small new plants, the ones you hover over, expecting the worst, can survive insults happily. Last fall I set out stripling shrubs. What the rabbits did to them behind my back was downright criminal. Apparently there is no Hercule Poirot to ferret out garden malefactors, or, for that matter, foxes.

Unlabeled, down to nubbins, they became unrecognizable until healthy new growth in spring provided leaf-labels that refreshed my memory. Could it be that rabbits’ untutored pruning helps plants survive?

Gardener’s truism: Favorite Plants Fall First. Here are some examples from our garden. Caveat: Dead plants are not photogenic.

Camellia sasanqua ‘Yuletide’

Slow to establish, but a giant now with hundreds of blooms each year. After Hurricane Irene felled its buddy, a stunning crabapple in its prime, ‘Yuletide’ has been in full sun. Our attempts at air layering have been unsuccessful. Last year we shaped it, limbed it up to expose its handsome trunks and planted shade-lovers beneath. Any connections here? How does one reckon with an instant twelve-foot-wide void in the garden? Like all good gardeners, we’re procrastinating — in denial, and hoping.

Dancing with blooms

Just as lovely close-up

Lovely bones

Little green here except for Southern Indica azalea leaves, hellebore, and epimedium

Camellia sasanqua ‘Sho a no sakae’

Our very first camellia, the only camellia survivor of Hurricane Isabel, has been standing in a pool of water off and on for most of the past year and a half. It is fully exposed to the western summer sun but protected on the east. Last fall its bloom was spectacular. Today, half of it is dead and the only green growth we see is from a vagrant crossvine that could survive Noah’s flood.

It’s survived hurricanes and flooding where others failed, a real favorite of ours

Covered in blooms in November and December

Looking pretty good here. We celebrated our good luck in February. Too soon

A skeleton today

Dwarf Pittosporum

Tidy and dependable, an undulating three-foot-high river of green during hot summers, they were a shapely segue to our side garden, a floating grace note that we took for granted. Not today. Brittle limbs, crumbled and broken from snow load, have left dark dead patches punctuating (precious few) flowing mounds of foliage. When the plants bloomed, which was rare for us, we’d smell a heavenly scent before we’d find the small, creamy, tucked-in flowers. At its northern limit here, it’s been down before but has usually recovered in a year or so. Not so sure this year.

Mounded on either side, in the distance, leading us into the side garden

Mounds crushed under snow that lasted and lasted caused breakage of brittle limbs

Where do we go from here? Maybe the plants will tell us


Another southern beauty at its northern limit that we grow as signature plants in our decked and protected courtyard. The catch: the deck covers a quagmire. After a heavy rain you can see water between the planks. Since the drowning of a wax myrtle to the east and the axing of an aggressive, uninvited water oak to the west, they are targets for winter and summer sun. Untidy, worn-out feather dusters now.

A view of the courtyard in May

And today

Viburnum tinus

Good, that one’s gone. Its lumpiness was a drag on garden real estate, and its pretty blooms turn to mush during spring freezes. (PS: It likes Mediterranean climates without the freezes.) I’ll replace it with a reliable azalea. Oh dear, now that the trunks are cut down and the blob is removed, I can see new growth at the base. Too much work to dig up; we’ll have to keep it whacked back if I’m to fit that azalea in. Sigh. . .more work down the road.

Viburnum tinus in bloom. Not my photo, mine never looked that good.Photo by Hope Grove Nurseries, UK. Bet they don’t get down to 3 degrees over there

The Lump yesterday, cut away today


Shabby spikes, whether growing in sun or shade they are today. All of them, including ‘Kleim’s hardy.’ which apparently isn’t all that hardy. They look as though they will probably come back, but they are not in any hurry to put out new growth. ‘Frost Proof,’ is the one exception, looking good and covered with budding flower buds, the best I’ve seen. Maybe ‘Frost Proof’ likes cold winters.

In better days

The worst looking gardenia happens to be at the front of the house, the healthy hedge is dwarf yaupon holly, the stringy hydrangea has filled out and has flower buds

‘Frost Proof’ came through the winter unphased, Florida anise, variegated Solomon’s seal, and fuschia azalea

Our ‘Pink Ruffles’ Azalea Hedge

Rutherford hybrids that we’ve nicknamed Bubble Gum Pink, they’ve been brightening our driveway for a long time. The nickname usually comes to mind first. They were originally planted among pines for high shade, while a neglected, tangled, but healthy mass of periwinkle and wild creepers took care of excess water below.

Like teeth, both the uppers and lowers were extracted, the former by hurricane, the latter by us after ground hornets took up residence. Then we blitzed-pruned them two summers ago. O boy! They’ve had a rough road.

A portion of the hedge about five years ago

Normally fully evergreen, blighted by eastern winter sun

Coming along far beyond expectations after this winter. Next year they may be a hedge!

See what I mean about Exposure Exposure Exposure . . . and More?

No time for fretting. Onward, to the pruners, to the loppers, to the axes, to the saws!

On the other hand, maybe we will wait and see. . .

Meanwhile, let’s enjoy spring. And what a spring it is! Brown twigs are no longer focal points. The green covers them, sorta. And spring colors distract us from remnants of winter dirge. Copious rainfall has egged on lush growth – maybe too exuberantly — and blooms. Even garden idlers that I annually threaten with extinction (with no follow-through) are coming round this year. Maybe three degrees wasn’t so bad after all.

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Posted in spring bloom, Spring shrubs, Uncategorized, Winter damage | Tagged , | 6 Comments

Nature’s Caretakers

Foxy Friends lead the way.

That is what we gardeners are. Nature’s Caretakers.

We’re on the front lines, holding back a people-scape that creeps into wild places where animals roam free.

Late September monarch on pineapple sage

We don’t usually think of ourselves as holding a line.

But when the wild menagerie out there is looking for security, gardens take on a critical role.

Kind of like those old-time homey boarding houses where, for a token, the temporarily displaced could find a comfortable room and a hot meal.

And so we gardeners can be a friend to the weary traveler, the wary homebuilder, the hungry fledgling, the young hunter.

Skipper on turtlehead, or Chelone glabra late summer

In return, we are repaid handsomely.

Insects pollinate flowers. Worms turn the soil. Birds eat insects and weed seeds.

Garden skinks eat grubs and worms (and a whole lot more). Turtles mate in the shade of greenery and eat strawberries. (We can’t win them all!)

Rabbits like violets. Snakes, hawks, foxes dine on rabbits, voles, moles. And the circle of life remains unbroken.

A patch of our wild garden with salvia and sunflower

Thirty years ago a group of us founded the Albemarle Environmental Association (AEA) to be vocal advocates for our land and water.

Five years later, we received funding from the Albemarle-Pamlico Estuarine Study (sponsored by the Clean Water Act) to ramp up our community outreach.

Nature’s Caretakers: You Can Be One was born. It’s a lively How-To guide for taking care of your patch of Mother Earth.

The leading players in the guide are a family of foxes who endure the trials of pollution but still remain hopeful.

They’re named after the Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds of eastern North Carolina: Albe and Marle are mom and dad, Pam and Lico their youngsters.

The full text of Nature’s Caretakers is on our web site, AEA on the Web.

Here we present the Fox Family cartoons, humorous and on-point. We hope they remind you of our importance as gardeners – and give you a great big smile.

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This post is dedicated to Elaine, who did all the artwork for AEA publications, which included logos, elegant depictions of river basins, wetlands and woodlands ecosystems, and the Fox Family cartoons.

Graciously, and with enthusiasm, she donated her time and considerable talent to all these projects. Her artwork, always based on meticulous research, here shines with humor and wit.

Posted in Environmental Humor, Uncategorized, Wildlife | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

With Sincerest Apologies to the Daffodils in my Garden

Oh daffodils, sweet daffodils, my sweet sweet daffodils,
Wherefore art thou?
Fain wouldst I look upon your sunny countenance
Daily I seek your bright orbs reflected in mine own imperfect orbs
But if thine eye forever be cast down from me,
I fain accept my plight on bended knee,
Sworn by my love for thee,
Still begging thy kind forgiveness
For my unruly waywardness,
Henceforth I promise utmost fealty to my sunny lords.

Pretty corny faux-Shakespeare, eh. But they heard me! The daffodils are on the march! They weren’t a couple of days ago.

For years these ‘Ice Follies’ have peformed like champs, photo from 2010

There’s an ulterior motive for the bad verse. I’m trying to make up for my flagrantly careless treatment of the daffodils in my garden. You might say that I am easing guilt pangs with easy flattery.

No plant in my garden has been so reliable and so carefree and rewarded me with so much happiness than daffodils. And no plant have I treated with such disrespect.

Even shrouded by an old azalea browned out by our bitter winter, they’ll rise and bloom

In spring my guilt catches up with me and I begin to have doubts. Will they actually bloom this year? I ask myself. By the first of February I’m out feeling for telltale nubbins, or buds, deep down inside the just-emerged leaves. If I can’t find them, I am consumed with doubt and loss and guilt. (Well, maybe I’m being a little too melodramatic.)

Nothing says “country” more than a clump of daffodils against a fence

Lucky daffodils in other gardens get planted to proper depth in good soil with good drainage and a soupcon of fertilizer. They might even get watered during a dry fall. Not in my garden. The weather, not me, provides them with their needs: cold wet winters, dry summers for resting, and good sunshine during spring.

How I love my daffodil path!

What do I give my daffodils?

To begin with, I stuff them into holes small and shallow, only as deep as the trowel will go easily. Or I carve (chop) out a stingy hole in rooty soil with my trusty garden knife and coax (shove) them in.

They may be snug in their holes, but I’m sure there are air pockets around them. I count on a rainy day to complete the planting. For good measure I toss an extra helping of mulch on top of them and count that as part of the “planting depth.”

When faced with a big bag of daffodils, my idea is not necessarily to plant well but to plant fast. This gets me back on the couch quicker. I’m hoping to make the Guinness Book of World Records some day (for speedy bulb-planting, not speedy trips to the couch).

The view after Isabel, which arrived on September 18, 2003. Note the house across the canal, almost hidden

I really put my daffodils to the test after Hurricane Isabel. I planted them in dredge spoils. Unknown to us, part of our plot consisted of muck and mud, peat, and mounds of vegetation, some of it rotted, some not, that had been dug out of wetlands to create canals. We discovered the tangle after the hurricane flattened trees that had dared to start life in the murky stew.

It was an ankle-twisting dumping ground covered by a veneer of soil. But I was determined to pretty up the place after the fallen trees were cleared.

What could be better than daffodils! Why, they would even have full sun in spring and we would see sunlight in a moonscape. A bushel would make a statement, I thought. By mistake I ordered two. I had a mountain of bulbs to plant.

The “dredge-spoil” platform was cleared in late fall and the bulbs were planted in December and January. You can see the house across the canal more clearly now

The bulbs would be treated to precious little else besides bright sunshine. Gamely I worked my trowel in and around the debris, but some of the bulbs never had a chance.

Once in a while, my trowel slid down with no resistance, and I prided myself on planting a bulb properly.Then I saw the big fat bulb scoot right down into the pools of water that still lay underneath the dredge-spoil platform.

Next spring the ones that didn’t drown bloomed like champs. And they are still blooming, though not as prolifically, 15 years later, in a grown-up and shaded woodland.

I probably manage to plant ‘Tete a Tete’ properly, they are so tiny. They are another fine performer, and they wander, so they surprise us, too

How do they do it? I learned their secret from a bulb expert. No matter how deep we plant them, daffodils will manage. Too shallow? Year by year, new roots gradually “pull” the bulb down to a depth it likes.

Too deep? (My bulbs don’t have that problem; I’ve always felt six inches of depth was getting me too close to China.) As the bulb multiplies, its offsets will form closer to the soil surface.

Yahoo! I am the kid who got away with grabbing the forbidden cookies and didn’t get caught.

Daffodils across the front of our property are planted in fill that was thrown up when the road was built. It took five years for weeds to find a footing here. Occasionally, because they started life in squalor, these particular daffodils have had some 10-10-10 tossed on them as they came up in spring

As you have probably surmised, if I don’t plant well, I don’t amend or fertilize well. They go into mud and muck and the trowel gets stuck, and I curse my bad luck. Once or twice over the years I have fertilized them. I think.

I’ve read that fertilizing should be done in fall, so it’s on site in winter, when daffodils are putting out roots. But how in the world do you know where they are in fall? Should I be carrying a daffodil map in my head?

Nor do I dig daffodils when they get overcrowded and stop blooming. I just fuss at them. Sometimes I threaten them, but they are deaf.

To make an example once, I actually followed through on my threats. Did you know that there are a lot of bulbs in one of those clumps? More than you can imagine.

And you have to separate them and there are these little guys the size of your pinkie nail that you have to do something with.

I threw them in the woods. And guess what? It’s been about ten years or more, but a few are blooming today.

A clump from one of the cast-offs. Ladder in background is a giveaway. I would never plant daffodils near a ladder

Now what am I to do with the rest? I’m supposed to put them some place where they will stay dry. Will I remember where I put them? And remember to plant them next fall? And try to find a spot where no bulbs are already planted? (Which I can’t because I don’t have that map.) Fat chance of that.

So I never dig bulbs up if they don’t bloom. I look at slacker clumps and think they are handsome spots of fresh green popping up at the end of a cold winter and taking up weed-space.

A lovely ‘Ice Follies’ bloom, part of a clump that was moved but survived

Not of my own free will, but once in a while I have been known to dig up bunches of bulbs, always the biggest, healthiest bloomers. They are the unlucky ones that get caught in my frenzies of transplanting.

You may know the drill. You’ve purchased a fabulous plant, one with much more promise than any that you currently own, and you have just the spot for it. Trouble is, the spot is presently occupied by a happy, healthy plant, which has to be dug and, in all good conscience,  replanted elsewhere.

‘Tahiti’, a favorite

Of course, I am only speaking from other people’s experience, but it does seem I am always wanting to put a plant where bulbs are happy. To make matters worse, I sometimes, accidentally, chop a couple of bulbs as I’m digging.

Does a chopped up bulb ever grow back?

Well, no more finding pails and keeping them dry and forgetting about them and all that. I hunt around the garden with trowel in hand, right away, when I don’t need a map, till I find a bulbless spot. Now I can move on to other forgettable items.

Once I made a test case, and followed through on how those bulbs fared during the next couple of years. Do you know, they all bloomed! Though I don’t know about the chopped up ones.

The pot of bulbs and my trusty knife

Something must have distracted me this year. The other day, I found a three-gallon pot with bulbs planted in three inches of mud. When did I do that? And why did I do that?

I would never have remembered this particular pot because it was half covered by another pot that had found its way on top — except that the strappy leaves were growing every which way trying to find a way out. All 35 bulbs stuffed into one pot.

Yellow leaf blades but lovely roots

They were trying so hard, I couldn’t be a bad boy any more. So I gave them the same unruly planting treatment I give store-bought bulbs. They actually seemed to appreciate my efforts to get them out of the ghetto and into the country. Two of them look like they will bloom.

I have one more transgression to admit. After all the joy daffodils bring me, I get cross with them when they decide to check out and lay about like they own the garden, which, of course, they did a few weeks prior.

Clumps like these make me wish weather would stay cool for weeks. Once temps rise, daffs droop

Whoever said daffodils can hide behind daylilies? Mine are so rangy they smother the fresh-faced daylily clumps. Some people braid the leaves, but if I can’t plant ‘em right, I certainly can’t braid ‘em right. Anyway, I heard that braiding tears vessels that carry nutrients.

One year I decided to cut them all back before they got raggedy. I’d take my chances on next year’s bloom. I prided myself on being, as they say, pro-active, which I am usually not.

Was I bummed! The leaves regrew. I had twice as much work. Now I wait till I’m sure they’ve stopped growing and they look tired. By this time, how much good can they be doing for the plant?

The best combination: red quince, yellow daffodils, and in the background a young forsythia that will rise in future years

Whose idea was it to plant so many daffodils anyway?

Ah well, memories fade. By late spring I’ll be missing them and by next fall I’ll be looking to buy more.

A year from now I’ll be writing more doggerel to coax them into bloom.

You know, I don’t think I have enough pictures of daffodils. I’m going out to take some right now. In the meantime, you might like a slide show of our daffodils and some of their companions. Most of the pictures in this post come from the last decade of growing in our garden.

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Posted in Daffodils, spring bloom, Uncategorized | Tagged , | 8 Comments

Tatters of Winter, Songs of Spring

 Sunny Days Slip in Between the Raindrops!

Winter took a long time coming this year. In fact, I was so lulled by spectacular fall colors and balmy temperatures that I quite forgot to put the garden to sleep. Then I couldn’t. Snow, drear, and cold shooed my better gardening angels away and kept me indoors.

The cheeky young beech outshines the gnarly oak. What a show!

At least the snowfield, once dimpled with tracks of junco and squirrel, rabbit and raccoon, has ceded ground to sunshine, but the garden has lost all memory of last fall’s brilliance. No longer do bright shawls or icy blankets distract us from dingy, cribbled leaves and broken stems that an irritable winter left for us to clean up.

A brief cloak of invisibility before reality sets in

With great resolution I stride forth on a clear day to rake and trim, impose some order on the shambles. In the stillness, the benevolent Sun God begins to work on me, warming my bones and tickling my face . . . Hmm. . . mm. . . Maybe all this raking and trimming isn’t so necessary right now . . . Maybe I could wait a while . . .

Beneath the rabble that is still carousing along the road a field of daffodils waits to sprout

Instead of raking, I begin to putter. Instead of trimming, I take some time to look and listen, touch and smell.

With the flash of autumn gone and the garden converted to sepia and silver (a more elegant description than dingy and cribbled), a world of whimsy opens up to me.

Starbursts and sea urchins.
Pixie caps and petticoats.
Streamers and space ships.
Fairy cups and mouse parasols.
Honeycombs and featherdusters.

Ferns have crisped and curled and shriveled in reverse ballet of their springtime unfurling. Do these convolutions help release spores?

The dry, split-open, splayed husks hanging from hosta stalks (shame on me, even weekend gardeners pull out hosta stalks) really do look like rows of caps for pixies, with black angular seeds poking out like unruly locks.

In full bloom late summer, pollinators love clethra; tiny petals drop leaving “goblets” with seeds

Distinctive, diminutive seed capsules of clethra that cling to stems through winter could be cups for pixie ambrosia (except they are already stuffed with seeds).

Joepyeweed blooms are a summer show stopper, petals turn translucent in fall, hang on until wind unseats them

Now that blooms have faded, seed heads that are clustered in umbels on plants like Joepyeweed and sedum, could be parasols for mice. No wonder there are so many tales of wee folk in the woods.

Honeycombed cells that remain on stems of monarda still retain their signature pungence. The familiar sweet gum fruits that crunch under foot and make spikey holiday decorations could be space ships landed from some alien micro-world.

Echinacea, or coneflower, seed heads. Photo from Pinterest

Without their petals, purple coneflowers, also known as echinacea, become sea urchins, those mysterious creatures of the tides.

In fact, the Latin term for sea urchins and their starfish cousins is echinoderm, or “spiny skin.” When all the seed-bearing spines fall away, a miniature hollow tepee remains on each stem, cozy way station for spider eggs or small creatures that need a winter refuge.

A breeze drifts by and crisp petticoats waltz in the wind. Yes, those hydrangea blooms could have been cut down earlier, but now, with petals bleached muslin and etched with veins, they could be the stuff of fancy dress balls. Do they give shelter to sleepy buds?

Miscanthus seed heads still rosy and tight in fall

Tousled streamers of dried grasses spiral out of control, bring me back momentarily to the clean-up I should be doing.

By late winter seed heads are fluffy and seeds are flying

Seeds from a butterfly bush swirl like fine dust as I jostle the plant (no I didn’t cut those down, either). Now I know why we find seedlings in yonder beds. What color will their blooms be? That’s a mystery to be solved.

Fuzzy seedheads on New York ironweed, here backed by red maple with swelling flower buds

I touch fuzzy seed heads of New York ironweed, ageratum, and aster, and they are softer and more pliant than I would think. Wee feather dusters for a wee cottage? More practically, tufts of down for nests.

A tangle of fuzzy seed heads and grasses that the gardener will have to cut down but a hideout for birds and small animals

From a gardener’s perspective, there is the matter of seeds attached to the fuzz, oh dear.

I hope the sprawling white wood aster doesn’t shirk its camouflage duties. Its relaxed stems seem to distract hungry rabbits from prostrate phlox beneath.

Our crabapple provides a banquet in fall, though berries dry up by winter

As I walk, I hear continual scuffing and scratching. Quiet chirruping, too, sotto voce murmurs not meant for anyone’s ears. Has the Sun God touched creatures of woods and garden, too, and are they humming their enjoyment as they fill their bellies?

Crabapple on ice last year and snow-crusted ground makes foraging difficult. Let the melting begin….

Safely hidden or boldly surveying, thrashers, wrens, sparrows, cardinals, mice and squirrels are scratching out a living on our plot. I see titmice and chickadees clinging to goldenrod, plucking their dinner. Below ground, earthworms and millipedes will be waking, hungry for seasonal discards, pooping out new soil.

Where would they go if I wiped the slate clean each fall–if all of us wiped it clean? What would they eat? What would they use to build homes?

Mother Earth does not care so much for clean slates. She sweeps the leavings of summer into tatters of winter. A host of creatures will scoop up the tatters.

A touch of spring. Crabapple in bloom last year, sheared grass sprouting new growth

They’ll recycle them one way or another, and next spring new life, sweet song, and rich soil will be cast over a new-begun land.

I hear the barred owl that lives deep in our bottomlands. Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all? he calls in his distinctly southern drawl. Can courtship, mating, nesting and a new family be far behind?

Witch hazel, Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Jalena’ flowering now, its best ever bloom despite the wet, cold winter, or maybe because of it. High, wide and spreading, its coppery, strappy flower petals, a mix of red at the base, yellow and orange, fairly glow in the sun

Posted in garden maintenance, Native Plants, snow storm, spring bloom, Uncategorized, wildflowers, Winter | Tagged , , | 8 Comments

Paris is for Gardeners, Too

But We Have So Many Other Tales to Tell

(However, if you don’t want to hear tales about our afternoon pastries and our quirky “Top Ten,” slide over to Great Gardens in the sidebar and click on four Paris gardens. Or follow these links: Giverny, Luxembourg Gardens, Promenade Plantee, Musee Rodin. Our trip was such a ‘Top Ten,’ I had to write about more than gardens.)

Originally, Susan and I planned to see half of France in a week. When we realized that wouldn’t be practical, we narrowed our thinking and settled for Paris in a week. Of course, even a week was not enough time, but what a memorable week! That was back in 2010.

Our first stop, Musee de Cluny, National Museum of the Middle Ages, which houses a fascinating collection of sculpture, tapestry and artifacts

Frank Sinatra had lulled us into believing that April in Paris would be wreathed in bloom and saturated in sun. Surely, May would be even more ineffable. As you’ll see in the pictures, May was not Sinatra’s April in Paris.

Notre Dame was on the way to a garden, so we stopped to visit

Cloudy, cold and rainy did not stop us from walking the city every day, umbrellas at-the-ready, dressed in basic black. We looked Tres Parisienne, well, missing the high heels and fashionista flair. Still, an elegant upgrade from our quotidienne garden couture.

The Tres Parisienne camouflage worked exceedingly well. Five minutes out on the street the first day a courier (a courier, mind you!) asked us for directions. Sorry, we can’t help you, we said in perfect English. From there on, giving directions became a daily ritual. We met all sorts of people, and after a while, we actually knew what we were talking about.

L’eglise de la Madeleine, site of tumultuous history, built as a neo classic temple to honor Napoleon army, dedicate to Ste. Mary Magdalene

Lunches were usually on the run: that ineffable French staple, a baguette with butter, thin-sliced ham and emmenthaler. (Did we share a baguette? I can’t remember, but I hope not.). For late-afternoon pick-me-ups we stopped in cafes for another ineffable staple: French pastry and coffee. In fact, the day we walked to L’Eglise Madeleine, we just had to side-step into nearby Fauchon, the quintessential Parisian pastry chefs.

We could see the Eiffel Tower, the dome of Les Invalides and Tour Montparnasse from our room

We were staying in a lovely pension near the Latin Quarter, La Demeure, now a Best Western Plus. No frills, welcoming, old-worldish, inexpensive, and with lavish breakfast. So maybe we did split those baguettes at lunchtime.

Rue de Varenne was our favorite street, on the way to gardens, little shops, a world away from traffic, a part of the old Cite de Varenne

Occasionally we’d skip the speedo-baguette routine and enjoy a sit-down lunch. The large ornate baroque dining room at the Musee d’Orsay was elegant, efficient, with good food and conducive to people-watching. (The museum not so orderly, in rehab, and we never did find the second floor.)

Of course, we had to cross the Pont Neuf, the oldest bridge in Paris

Sunday brunch near the Promenade Plantee became a most memorable meal for us. Oh, and Flams for a quick supper. We found this chain-eatery, noisy and jolly, by following the mouth-watering scent of French pizza.

You might think we did more eating than sightseeing, but we needed the calories to stay on top of all those directions we were giving out.

The ancient and the modern. Hotel de Ville, original and current site of City of Paris headquarters since 1357. This building dates from 17th century, exterior faithfully reconstructed in 19th century after fire; the inside is updated, lavish, and a venue for large gatherings

Later, I’ll get to snatches of gardens, but just so you know we didn’t spend all our time testing pastry, I am listing our personal “Top Ten.” Doesn’t every city call out a “Top Ten?” Ours are based more on memories and impressions than grandeur or beauty.

The “Top Ten”

1. We saw a couple hundred renaissance paintings, combing the Louvre before we found her. There she was. Mona Lisa, mysterious as ever, diminutive in frame, locked behind glass, and bathed in strobe lights.

Yes, strobes from hundreds of flash bulbs flaring. Were there other paintings in the room? Can’t remember. We jockeyed for position behind the ropes, along with a lot of people reverently gazing, or fawning, depending on your viewpoint. (All this, after we fortified ourselves at the café downstairs with mediocre pastry.)

Some people preferred the fountain to the Mona Lisa

2. We climbed the Arch of Triumph and saw l’etoile of avenues and I bought a ten-ton coffee-table book about the engineering of the Eiffel Tower for Bob, forgetting that I would have to lug it for the rest of the day.

Photo proves we climbed it!

Champs Elysee with double row of pleached London plane trees — and traffic

3. Which is ironic, because we never actually climbed the Eiffel Tower. But we could see it from our room and late one evening we had a delicious crockpot-simmered stew of fish, veggies and penne on a bateau in the Seine. We were right there at 10 pm when the Eiffel lights winked on. So I would say all this counts.

The Eiffel Tower

4. From the boat-dinner we walked to the Trocadero, which is pretty lively at night, may be the best time to visit. An inline skating contest, music and emcee going full blast in the arena.

Around midnight, traffic cleared, police and ambulances arrived and hundreds of skaters suddenly appeared, flowing around us in sinuous formations to queue up for The Race. At midnight? Hey, we didn’t make the rules. This was more fun than a daytime visit would have been: dry fountain, waterless pond and gardens that looked challenged – at night!

Night life around the Trocadero

5. Finally, after one, two, three tries, we got to Musee de L’Orangerie, where huge panels of Monet’s Waterlilies are installed. First try, visiting dignitaries pre-empted us. (We were too rain-bedraggled to fake being dignified.)

Second try we were told that actual closing time was about 45 minutes before published closing time.

Third try, last day of our trip, was a winner. Or was it? After seeing Monet’s garden at Giverny and so many other vibrant Monets, the battleship-gray panels with splotches of color and wrinkled seams and missing sunlight took some time to get used to. We thoroughly enjoyed the modern art downstairs.

Les Nympheas at L’Orangerie

6. Ah, MontMartre. We saw the seamy, the kitschy, and the quiet lanes with kids tended by moms or au pairs on up the hill.

We took the funicular to reach SacreCoeur for some outstanding views of the city under the clouds. Quite a party outside the church: break dancing, juggling, and music. Inside, old women were praying to icons directly across from vending machines.

Sacre Coeur

A tourist alley in Montmartre

A quiet lane near the church

Boutiques like this one after another along Place Pigalle

Moulin Rouge. Did it look like this a century ago?

7. The Palace of Versailles was so crowded we had to knock it off our top ten. So here’s a great substitution if you are looking for opulence and elegance and wonderful artwork: the Musee Jacquemart-Andre.

A husband-wife team with a passion for art built the mansion and spent years building this fine collection. We spent a lot of time viewing their temporary exhibit of Spanish painting, From Greco to Dali.

The grand hall in the museum

Elegant drawing room

7a. But the trip to Versailles was memorable. Crazy soccer fans, all ages, hundreds of them, on their way to a meet, wearing orange costumes and make-up, tooting horns, waving flags, marching through the train station.

And a crazy wedding party cruising town, guys cheering, hanging out the limo bouffant with yards of tulle. (In Paris they choose tulle; in America we choose rolls of crepe paper, or toilet paper.)

Aside: Thirty years prior, visiting Versailles on a bright September day with Ellen, palace and gardens were serene and sun-washed, even lonely.

8. We missed Napoleon’s tomb at L’Hotel des Invalides. The chapel was closed. Instead, we watched a first-class military commissioning in the courtyard until we got distracted by a smoky column rising in the distance, a waste-fire, we learned from a young girl we chatted up whose boyfriend happened to be tending the fire.

Ceremony at L’Hotel des Invalides

Nobody’s noticing! Palais Grand in the background

9. How could we forget walking in a pouring rain along Quai du Louvre. Doesn’t that sound romantic? No singing or dancing, through the puddles, though. (Kinda disappointing to find out the Louvre was closed after all that slogging. Almost equal to Sinatra’s April in Paris.)

Yes, we slogged from Place de la Concorde to the Louvre. Note Arch of Triumph in distance

10. And finally, maneuvering through traffic near Place de la Concorde — and coming out alive.

The rains will start in a minute. We actually had one of those cones instead of a pastry that day

There’s an 11th Top Ten. The people we met.

The motorman we never saw who stopped the train just for us. He’d seen us tearing through the lonely station, then slumping in despair as the train began to move out. I hope we waved a thank you.

The manager of The Paris Story movie (a well done slice of history) who graciously delayed its start when we needed a few extra minutes to settle in. We’d been held up trying to give directions to…

. . .the ageless Vietnamese gentleman who had laid out his documents, including holy pictures, and asked us for help. Sadly, he needed more than we could give. (We wonder where he is today).

Riding the first car

The delightful woman riding first car on the Metro – all of us crammed in, our previous train having broken down with too many riders.

Amused by mother’s persistent urging unwilling daughter to photograph the tracks, she finally said, authoritatively, “Take the picture,” which segued into a conversation of curiosities: “Yes, I know, America, but where in America?” As we stepped out of the car, she turned to us and waved goodbye. “Enjoy our fine city!” she said. And we did.

Les Halles, one of the world’s largest shopping malls, more underground than above ground. Lonely outside in the rain

Jardin des Plantes

This is the main botanical garden in all of France, and it was just around the corner from our hotel, so how could we not stop here.

Founded in 1635 it’s part of the Museum National l’Histoire Naturelle network. Buildings that house exhibits on evolution, minerals, paleontology and botany were closed on a chilly Sunday morning, but we were free to roam the grounds.

What a treat to find plants growing here that we grow back home – and every plant was labeled. Oh my! If only I could remember all I learned that day. The slide show reminds us of how much we forgot.

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There are green spaces everywhere in Paris, pocket gardens around public buildings, palaces and churches. Here are some that we found.

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And one last nostalgic glimpse of the Seine. . .

The Pont Saint-Michel crossing to the Ile de la Cite during a quiet evening, as the weather cleared on our last day


Posted in Gardens in Paris, Paris, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Big Bomb Cyclone of 2018

Doesn’t the land look beautiful? Pristine, frozen in place, blue shadows long, yellow sun wan as it drops to the horizon.

In all the newscasts I’ve heard, however, nobody seems to point out how effectively a Bomb Cyclone can spiffy up a garden. Pretty much instantaneous – and all the while you are comfy in the house, watching out the window, playing guilt-free hooky.

(Aside: I could use the free time to clean closets, like my neighbor, and heaven knows, our closets need cleaning, they’re like Fibber McGee’s. Bob would be good at cleaning closets but he would find a home for everything (just not ours) and then we would start arguing because I am a collector. Now I’m so glad I didn’t give my twenty-year-old hiking boots away, waterproof with great treads. I can certainly use them in this weather. Of course, I’m not going out in this weather, but if I did. . .just sayin’ . . . Anyway, I can’t let anyone see me because my hair is standing up like some punk rocker, only on me it looks like I am a bag lady.)

Even gardens have really bad hair days

Usually, in January, I am hacking away at last summer’s rogues still left on the street slope. Not that I am impelled by any particular sense of order, but beneath the forest of stalks the daffodils are trying to break out, and I want to give them their place in the sun.

Maybe I should hire some deer to do the work

Try as hard as I might, I can’t help stepping on them as I work.

I spend more time apologizing and setting their broken nubbins to rights than clipping the holdovers.

Do you suppose the daffodils are actually sprouting in this weather?

(Darn, I should have included the “Bomb” in my last post, Whizz Bang Ideas to Tidy up the Garden. Gardeners should be aware, however, that you can’t always count on a “Bomb” to come in at the right time.)

This particular Bomb Cyclone was followed by a Polar Vortex, so the pristine beauty is probably lasting a few days longer than most of us would like.

At least we don’t have a foot of snow on top of 4 previous storms. Birds hang out and feed on seed thrown under the table.  Susan in New Hampshire

So what are a Bomb Cyclone and a Polar Vortex? And what is Bombogenesis, and Explosive Bombogenesis?

At first I thought they were titles of end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it movies advertised on television.

Then I thought the media was hyperventilating again. What do they smoke to dream up this drama?

Do they think we are gullible enough to be taken in? (Well, yeah.)

Nor do we have ice floes crashing onto land as wild seas rise, as they did on the Mass coast. Photo by Charles Orloff

Turns out the terms were coined by a couple of MIT professors back in 1980 who had a way with words.

They had spent a decade studying the development of storms in the Northern Hemisphere.

Bombogenesis  means a Big Storm is growing.

Explosive Bombogenesis means an Even Bigger Storm is growing.

Our gazing globe isn’t quite so impressive as that table but it does have a rakish quality

Bomb Cyclone is the term used by scientists to describe a Mighty Clash between Very Cold Air from Somewhere Up North and Nice Warm Air from Gulfstream Currents.

Small clashes happen pretty regularly, and we call them plain old Cyclones.

For a Cyclone to become a Bomb, however, barometric pressure must drop 24 millibars in 24 hours, which is a lot.

Cotton balls, anyone?

Only on rare occasions do hurricanes register such speedy descent.

Pressure dropped 53 millibars in 24 hours during the Bomb Cyclone of 2018, which means this was some sort of Titanic Event.

Polar Vortex, as you already know, is a shaft of Very Cold Air from Somewhere Up North that has decided the South is worth a visit.

And that is why we are now stuck in our cabins looking out at lovely, pristine roads and wishing that Polar Vortex and Bomb Cyclone were the latest apocalyptic movies.

News Bulletin from The Snow Shovel Daily:
Southerners….. it’s snowy and cold outside.  Please do not leave home or drive.
Northerners…….it’s snowy and cold outside. You’ll need your heavy coat.

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Posted in Blizzard, snow storm, Uncategorized, Winter | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Whizz-bang Ideas for Garden Clean-up, a Self-Help Manual

You, too, Can Have That Sleek Magazine-Garden Look in Your Garden

Visitors are coming and they like to garden and they want to see what new plants are growing in your garden. You haven’t been paying much attention lately, so you decide you’d better take a look around to see what you can show off. You find so many surprises! You can’t count ‘em all!

Never in my garden!

Dead stalks, dead leaves, half-dead plants, all-dead plants, seed heads with dropsy, vines that own the place, weeds that challenge vines for ownership, and a downed tree limb. (When did that happen?) And where is that path, you know, the one that was there last month?

After the shock, you bolt into a frenzy of activity in the vain hope that you can whip your garden into one of those sleek “magazine-gardens” you have always coveted but thought unattainable because you do not have an army of gardeners equal to workers in an ant colony.

Help is On the Way

Trust me, here is a simple, step-by step, three-part plan of action that is guaranteed to bring results.

Disclaimer: All discussion here is based on meticulous long-term studies and bears no similarity to the author’s gardening techniques. Don’t pay attention to our neighbor when she says she sees me pushing wheel barrows piled-high with “stuff” the day before visitors are coming. Ditto for Bob, in muddied jeans, dutifully digging out soggy, renegade vegetation.

Part I: The Fine Art of Distraction

If you only have a day or so to clean up, go for Distraction.

MAJOR DISTRACTION: If you are fortunate enough to have a mess like this, be sure to steer people right to it. The “wow” factor will distract them from anything else, and they will be thankful that THEY do not have to deal with it.

Or, you could stand a shovel or shovels into a bed or beds and say that certain areas are Under Construction.

A rather attractive distraction, don’t you think? Hoses always add a nice touch, shows you are really working

Randomly placed piles of topsoil, sand, mulch, clods of clay, piles of bricks, tree limbs, even chunks of concrete, anything you happen to have lying around that you haven’t got to yet can be a distraction and add a convincing touch.

There are a couple of problems with this approach. For one thing, you probably don’t have enough shovels.

A post hole digger can be substituted for a shovel. This implies even more ambition, that a fence is going in soon. (Actually, Bob simply forgot to put it away after planting.) But this example shows why it’s important to choose a site for a post hole digger, carefully. Some alert visitor would be bound to ask why you are putting a fence in front of a window

It is possible that your visitors, though polite, would privately think that you have gone bonkers over one too many garden projects. The trick is to limit what is considered Under Construction to the number of shovels you actually own. Then you can spend time creating Great Garden Art.

Never minimize the impact of Great Garden Art. It is the Distractor of Choice.

We planned ahead and purchased this Distractor of Choice, a rusty “heron with an attitude” for use in emergency clean-ups

Rusty is in these days. Hunt up some rusty rakes or long-handled cultivators. (Shovels not available; they are needed for sites Under Construction.)

Balance the tools upside down on a jumble of broken bricks, and you will have created an award-winning piece of Garden Sculpture.

Even chunks of concrete can become Great Garden Art, but you should be clever in your interpretation. Then again, what polite person would risk challenging you and still expect to get a dinner invite by saying no, that really doesn’t look like a box turtle with a cracked shell, or half an alligator.

Here is a sample of our clever garden art we call Neo-prene Primitive-Industrial Musk Ox. Kind of Picasso-ish, with the crazy eyes. Don’t you think?

Once somebody (seriously) asked me if my Irish Spring soap bars neatly set about on sticks to deter deer were a new kind of garden decor. I was thrilled by the question. What new possibilities were suddenly opened up to me! (Sorry, no pictures available, that’s proprietary.)

Oops, pay no attention to those last remarks, this treatise is based only on scientific studies.

Part II: The Fine Art of Decluttering

Your next step to a sleek “magazine-garden” is to de-clutter your property.

(Note: designated Distractors of Choice such as garden tools and piles of debris that are now elevated to Great Garden Art should not be mistaken for clutter.)

You should prioritize tasks. Pay particular attention to entry paths and beds around the house first.

You have, of course, already cleared the buggy spider webs around the lights near the front door that make decorating for Halloween so unnecessary in the South.

Now, take a good look at those tall half-dead plants with stringy stems and two leaves that you’ve been nursing for five years. They do not contribute to an uncluttered vista.

They would look far better chopped down, though then they would look like short, all-dead plants which, however, are less noticeable than tall, half-dead plants because short, half-dead plants that look like short all-dead plants tend to fade into the background.

Chances are, they’ll recover in a year or two, maybe even grow four leaves. Anyway, if they don’t, by that time you will have forgotten that you ever planted them.

Exception: Do not cut down dead plants if they are covered with vines. Green lumps can contribute to an artistic vista.

The point is, you don’t want anyone asking what is wrong with that plant with the two leaves, or, did you actually pay ten dollars for that stick! (Well, it wasn’t a stick when I bought it. Oh, I forget, I know, I know, this should all be based on scientific research, no personal anecdotes.)

Next, you need to consider bumpy stuff on the ground. Yes, I mean weeds and those sickly patches of groundcover you saw growing so thick in your neighbor’s yard you just had to have some, but that turned out to be weed-bullied wimps in your garden.

Note: If you are truly panicked about de-cluttering, you can always fall back on this Distractor of Choice, a strategically placed pickle pail

You should remove as much of the bumpy stuff as possible in order to  establish a proper base for your mulch. (See Part III: The Fine Art of Mulching.)  This is very important, since properly de-lumped flower beds can quickly give your garden that sleek, “magazine-garden” look, so you can spend the rest of your time planning your elegant “magazine-garden” wardrobe (she in flowing white sundress, he in spanking white tennis togs) to go with your unforgettable “magazine-garden” extravaganza.

We are happy to report that a new series of toning exercises consisting of crouch-walking, elbow-crunches and finger-curls, will, in no time, get you to that garden-perfection you seek.

(Caution: We recommend that you consult a physician before beginning any physical exercise program. Participants are warned that this activity may cause permanent bent-knees-bent-back-bent-elbows, otherwise known in scientific circles as the tin-man syndrome, and may prevent your showcasing those magazine-garden outfits to full advantage.)

Or, you could just use a pick axe to get at the weeds .

Adventurous and agile gardeners can find great refreshment in this activity that requires stooped-over power-walking and two-handed tugging, while deftly avoiding the trampling or pulling of favorite plants that happen to look dead.

Happily, there is no pause to roto-root roots, grapple with vines, or wrestle with grasses. Shears can be used effectively on hold-outs, provided no fingers get involved.

Part III: The Fine Art of Mulching

You are now ready to mulch your garden.

Those who seek the super-smooth look and have an extra moment or two, and can find the heirloom newspapers they have saved from the past twenty years or so, should now admit, painfully, that the great recipes, decorating ideas or garden tips hidden therein will never be read.

These yellowed, musty, papers should be spread over garden beds using a minimum of eight sheets of thickness. (Years of meticulous research have shown that this particular number  can actually smother unroto-rooted weeds.)

Invariably, as soon as sheets are spread, a stiff breeze will come up that will scatter the papers, creating great panic because now the gardener must figure out how scattered newspapers can become Great Garden Art. So keep a hose handy and wet the papers down immediately. And don’t even think about stopping to read any of those out-dated garden articles.

Do not feel guilty about omitting any of the above activities. Properly placed Pickle Pails can do double duty as Great Garden Art and Distractors of Choice. In this composition, pail in background draws the eye up and over the half-dead plant in foreground at the same time distracting from weeds in rock

Next pile on the mulch. You should know by now if you are a Dribbler or a Dumper. Dribblers carefully sift the mulch from their hands until it reaches a precise thickness, kind of like DaVinci adding oil glazes to Mona Lisa’s cheeks. The Dribbler Method is guaranteed to give you that enviable “magazine-garden” photo op, though it may take you a month to mulch a bed. Then you will have no time to prepare your “magazine-garden” outfits.

Dumpers, on the other hand, drop a bundle of mulch, the biggest they can grab, then kick the pile around and hope some of it lands where it’s needed. Dumpers are not artists but they do have an advantage over Dribblers. Newspapers will never poke through the mess that a Dumper has dumped and a Dumper can always claim the squirrels did it.

However, Dribblers have an advantage over Dumpers if fresh pine straw is used. Fresh pine straw has a mind of its own. If it is not applied with at least some finesse, it will give your plants a bad hair day, not easily explained away. Dumpers who are lucky enough to own a chipper-shredder, and know a person who is brave enough to use one, are in their glory because ground-up pine straw is easily tossed and kicked into place and will fall off plants on its own.

Simpler, of course, is purchasing pine bark mulch and hiring a person to spread it. That, or the ever popular dyed-red mulch, though you need to hope it doesn’t rain soon after application, unless you like your sidewalks tie-dyed red.

Easier still, is steering people away from the messes. Or inviting people for a romantic viewing of the garden at night by flashlight.

And then there was the evening dinner party planned for twelve. The New Hampshire gardener had strategically placed two-to-three-foot high colorful dummy boards of a Victorian family — mother, father, three kids and a dog – all cheerfully lighted, to guide guests to the house. After hours of sawing, sanding and painting, she was expecting raves.


Next year she brought the family inside

So, maybe you should just forget about the sleek magazine-garden look and put the magazine-garden outfits into storage and bake a great lasagna.

With special affection for those Master Gardeners who have visited over the years and been so enthusiastic and have never seemed to notice the weeds or the half-dead plants or the “bad hair” mulch.

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New York Frolics: A New Series

Gardens and Green Spaces in New York City

Every so often we invade New York City. We crash at my sister’s apartment. (She owns the refrigerator you might have read about in a previous post. Or, you can pick up the refrigerator thread in the Union Square Green Market entry below).

Flower booth at Union Square Green Market. Too bad we can’t carry some goodies home

There might be five or six of us – there might only be two of us. Each day is a marathon of museums and theatres, dining, gabbing and gardens.

One day we walked across the Brooklyn Bridge for pizza. One evening we had a late dinner on McDougal Street followed by a stroll through Washington Square.

If we’ve been to the theatre, we’ll meander back to our digs, or swing down to Little Italy for late pastry and coffee before we catch a cab or bus back.

We’re usually in by midnight, but sometimes the clock threatens to turn us into pumpkins.

Stone by stone, parts of the Cloisters were shipped from France and reconstructed

Whatever we plan, there is always a visit to a garden. It might be the High Line, or the Cloisters, or a lovely neighborhood park, or a Farmer’s Market. Going further afield, romantic Prospect Park in Brooklyn and the dazzling Bronx Botanical Garden are in the works, along with visits to “pocket parks,” or neighborhood green spaces.

When we want a mid-day rest or light lunch, we head for the Museum of the City of New York opposite the Central Park Conservatory Garden on Fifth Avenue and spend some quiet time viewing its excellent permanent exhibit, New York at it Core: Money, Density, Diversity, from Henry Hudson to the present.

A view of Central Park from the Conservatory Garden

We try not to miss Central Park. My sisters and I grew up loving Central Park. Our parents would ferry us from Queens to Manhattan and we would spend the day climbing the rocks, feeding the pigeons, skipping stones into the lake, riding the carousel.

We laughed at the seals when they clapped and barked (for us, of course) and munched on peanuts and crackerjacks to find the prize in the box. We would come home very tired but very happy.

Chrysanthemums coming into bloom at the Conservatory Garden

We didn’t know at the time (nor would we have cared) that Central Park was one of the finest parks in the world. Nor did we know that its designer, Frederick Law Olmstead was a visionary who created landscapes that beckon people to shed their street-lives and come and play.

Back in the 1970’s our casual rambles around the city would not have been comfortable.

Graffiti and garbage, drugs and crime had smudged a city that couldn’t pay its bills because its finances were in such disarray.

Late afternoon in lovely Gramercy Park, tucked among brownstones and high rise hotels

Parks and gardens, once oases from brick and mortar, became low priority, turned seedy, and, sadly, enhanced the decay of the city.

(On a personal note, tanked NYC credit ratings allowed us to purchase deeply discounted municipal bonds with generous interest payout that helped put our children through college.)

Today, the city and its gardens have a new look, a new, creative atmosphere.

Alliums on the High Line, the latest venture in New York City parks

It took a combination of public and private funding and can-do New York City gumption and talent to get the gardens growing again. And growing they are. Spectacularly! We are racing to take full advantage of these lovingly tended gifts.

New York Frolics is dedicated to the green spaces in New York City that we have already explored and hope to explore in the future. Here are our first entries.

Central Park Conservatory Garden Part I

Central Park Conservatory Garden Part II

The Cloisters and their Gardens

The High Line Part I    The High Line Part II

Union Square Green Market

Banner on a booth at the Union Square Green Market

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A Gardener’s Dictionary

Any discussion of gardens should focus on using correct terminology. This Gardeners’ Dictionary is presented as a handy guide for novice and seasoned gardeners alike with the hope that it will clarify currently used vocabulary.

(Note 1: Since this is a scholarly piece, pictures do not accompany text.)

Annual – plant that dies as soon as you plant it, as opposed to Perennial, which is a plant that had it lived, would have come back next year

Catalog Offerings, first choice – For plants used in cottage gardens look for Code MESS

Catalog Offerings, second choice – For plants used in formal gardens look for Code STIF

Chemical – product used to eradicate undesirable plants but works best on desirable plants

Deadheading – time-consuming chore of removing spent blooms, but can be avoided with the usual life cycle of Annuals or Perennials

Deer – adorable large creature that destroys your favorite daylily

Eradication – the act of chemically removing plants that are growing well

Hedge – a series of heavily pruned shrubs in a row that create a striking visual effect, especially if one or two shrubs in the middle die out

Meatballs – usually a food; in gardening a shrub pruned to this shape. For example, some home landscape designs feature many meatballs of varying sizes lined up in a row. Also known as lollipops.

Mulch – organic or inorganic material used for decorative purposes and/or conserving water that provides optimum conditions for colonization by weeds

Perennial – plant that had it lived, it would have come back next year, as opposed to an Annual which dies soon after you plant it

Planting in Threes – aesthetic landscape design technique that insures at least one plant in the group will remain alive long enough for you to enjoy it

Pruning – the act of chopping off undesirable growth, chainsaw most efficient and preferred tool

Rabbit – adorable small creature that destroys your favorite hosta

Seeding In – what weeds do best (see definition of Weeds)

Shrub – woody plant susceptible to disease, drought, poor drainage, bugs, rabbits and deer

Soil, clay – type of soil that causes plants to drown and die

Soil, sand – type of soil that causes plants to dry up and die

Soil, superior – type of soil that causes plants to grow. Nobody has this soil

Thug – plant that grows so well it pushes out Annuals and Perennials and has to be eradicated (see definition). Especially nasty because thugs are often so attractive they are desired by uninitiated gardeners

Tidy Garden – garden that is best viewed at night

Tool Belt – if worn and used properly, effective for keeping track of trowels, pruners, etc.

Tree – tall, grown-up thug with heavy roots and deep shade with no consideration for smaller plants

Trowel – small hand tool usually buried in the last place it was used

Weed – happy plant

Weeding – the act of removing happy plants to uncover dying Annuals or Perennials

(Note 2: Please feel free to notify the editor about any errors or omissions in this Dictionary.)

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