Writings about

the many life lessons

unearthed when we dig

in the dirt . . . and pursue

a range of other interests

in the constantly evolving

garden of life.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Update: Rain Gardener's Lesson

After I created the rain garden back in April, I never got enough rain to show me how it would work. Until last Saturday. And, typical of weather's incredible excesses these days, it didn't just rain; it deluged. More than 1 inch in less than 2 hours, turning fallen leaves, stems and dirt into downhill water skiers.

Strange, when it rains that hard, it shifts time. With the sound on skylights, the fast-forming streams, I would have sworn it went on longer. In any case, as the skies started clearing the rain garden looked like this:

Passable – until you pull back and look at the left side: no standing water.

This lopsided distribution stemmed from my embracing expediency, wanting quick gratification, being the impatient gardener; I knew the left side was higher and dug it down. But, not enough because I didn't expect rains to flood the low side, leaving the high side merely wet.

I learn yet again: In gardening and life, expect the unexpected.

So, now, it's unearth the plants and dig out more of the high side – or build up the right side to make the pond evenly deep. Orrr, leave it as is and enjoy whatever water I get wherever I get it.

I know what's right. Even the thing up. Yesterday, I half-heartedly dumped a wheelbarrow of mulch onto the right side. Today, I contemplate my next move.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Hitting the Road – and the Jackpot

Lyn and I recently drove to Waitsfield, Vermont, to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary, to give me a break from heavy high-spring gardening – and for the sheer pleasure of traveling the open road.

An unexpected bonus was discovering The von Trapp Greenhouse, founded in 1980 by Tobi and Sally von Trapp; Tobi's kin, refusing to live under Hitler's rule, had left Austria in 1938, after the Nazis annexed the country, eventually settling in Vermont. The family's remarkable story inspired the play and movie, The Sound of Music.

What a delightful search and find we had on this brisk May morning. Bidding goodbye to Tucker Hill Inn (where we had honeymooned 25 years earlier), I snapped this image, a partially shaded sunburst, near the office entrance.

Down backroads, past farms and ski lodges, camera-ready cows vie for attention, including these Belted Galloways, also known as Oreo Cows.

On to the Greenhouse, where a mountain view will take your breath away.

As the awe reverberated, Emily von Trapp, daughter of Tobi and Sally, took us on tour, showing us more hanging baskets of beauty than I've seen in a very long time.

I couldn't help myself. I came. I saw. I bought. Even when we aren't "looking" for anything, plants just appear and seduce us gardeners. It's happened over and over, so when it did on this trip, I simply enjoyed my good fortune, loaded up the Kia Soul and headed south, toward Connecticut, and home.

Driving just about any part of Vermont's Route 100 when neither skiers nor the leaf people are afoot is a carefree vacation all by itself. Here are a couple of images from the road, beginning with a view of the Green Mountains, part of the Appalachian range and origin of Vermont's nickname:

Looking at this waterfall, I can still hear the roar.

Home again, I planted several reminders of the The von Trapp Greenhouse, including the glowing begonia basket, an "anniversary gift" for Lyn, and a herb basket with holes through which the plants grow.

This getaway could not be complete without my watching The Sound of Music for the first time. Lyn had seen it before and happily joined me for a movie night.

For days, of course, my head was full of this movie music.

The beautifully evocative mountain scenes were shot in Austria. But when I hum, "The hills are alive . . . .", I'm feeling Vermont.

Monday, May 21, 2012

By Any Name, This Plant Is a Big 'Un

Carol Pruitt, my gardening friend in Preston, Connecticut, has given me great appreciation for the art of indoor arrangements created from plants in the garden. She also gave me a plant I'd never grown before: petasites.

Along with the plant, Carol passed on some advice, a warning, really: "Put it someplace where it can roam. Not in a garden bed – ever."

Now, I know why. This shade-loving, moisture-thriving perennial, native to Japan, known variously as Petasites japonicus, butterbur, sweet coltsfoot, bog rhubarb, has wondrously huge leaves – and a love of travel; it'll cover a lot of ground. Years ago, Carol planted her passalong petasites at the edge of her woods and saw it cover a huge swath, its gigantic leaves floating on tall stems, looking like characters in a sci-fi movie.

When she dug rhizomes for me three years ago, I watched them progress through this cycle: sleep, creep, leap. In this third spring, I photographed one of the several plants I'm growing, making a few images at intervals from March to yesterday.

Late March, ivory-colored blooms push through shady slope's damp dirt.

     By late-April, it's clear leaves will be much larger than previous two years.

        Above, I begin measuring in early May, recording well over a foot.

May 20, final measurement, my thumb on the 28-inch mark.

 May 20, still growing; lots of babies ready to turn slope into Petasites City.

I don't know what it is, but for some of us, there is a mighty appeal in plants with huge leaves, tall stems and insatiable appetites for space. They are transporting, a counterpoint to other plants sized to fit into a smaller pattern.

Too, these unusual plants offer graphic examples of nature's profound ability to create the awesome. One that comes with a warning. 

Friday, May 18, 2012

This Just In (The Magazine)

The evocatively titled magazine Living The Country Life includes a piece I wrote for the Spring issue; it's about one of my favorite gardening activities: pruning.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Noticed: First Roses and Poppy – Kapow!

The space between the porch and the sedum garden is home to a couple of my favorite roses, beach roses, both – one red, one white, started years ago from 6-inch cuttings taken from . . . a beach. I grow some roses with more breeding, but none with better fragrance and none with bigger hips.

Nearby, stands an orange poppy that either migrated from another part of the garden, or from another part of the state. Like a cat that adopts people, this poppy chose this spot. And, looking at the babies jumping out of the ground around it, this bright, ambitious poppy wants to establish a family compound.

Today, just before a nourishing shower, as if by agreement, the poppy and roses produced their first blooms: Kapow! Whomph! Boom!

Bright and bold as they wanna be, these flowers signal the end of spring's indecisiveness; Will I be chilly, will I be warm? Which way will I be?

Coy game's over, spring. Let the warmth prevail. In weather and flower. 

Monday, May 14, 2012

Places to Rest, Or Not

In addition to the three essential elements I believe a garden needs – plants, water, stone – I add one more: seating. Spots for resting a spell, taking a blow, taking a look at what I've done, trying to resist thinking about what I haven't done.

Join me in a walk around this acre of plantings, and take a look at some of my sitting places.

From the black bench, I can look over the Doublefile viburnum and the dry-bed stream and see plants across the front of the house. If I get up and walk to the right, I can rest on the stone bench and look at the white pine bonsai.

Up a path and around to the kitchen side of the house, facing the herb garden, is another bench, with a lilac behind it – and a lilac offspring growing up through the bench, on the right. On the stand in front of this bench is a formerly large azalea I dug out of the garden and potted as a bonsai.

Just across from this bench are two wrought-iron chairs next to the herb garden.

Continuing to the back, a bench, a chair and a bamboo fountain make an irresistible stopping place.

Alas, too often, I do resist. In fact, the time we just spent viewing these places to rest is as much time as I typically spend resting there on any given day. As soon as I sit, I see a weed that wants pulling, a shrub that needs pruning. A potted plant gasping for water. Then, away I go. Most gardeners I talk with tell similar stories. We've got to do better. I hereby vow to just do it. Any day now.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Mother's Day Buckeye

I've always believed it's difficult to buy the perfect gift plant for gardeners, as we all have our own ideas of what perfection is. Some seven years ago, I learned that it's also difficult to buy the perfect plant for the gardener's wife.

Although Lyn and I typically do not mark Mother's Day and Father's Day with gifts (that's been our children's roles), I departed from tradition and bought Lyn a buckeye tree – because she was born in The Buckeye State. OK, I'll admit part of my reason was I love the tree and didn't have one in Connecticut.

As it was close to Mother's Day, the tree was in high bloom, just as it is now, though it was a few feet shorter back then. The nursery folks had tied a big red ribbon on the tree, and as soon as I hurriedly planted it, I called Lyn over to a window for the reveal.

Taken today, here is a photo-reenactment of that scene from years ago:

"What is it?" Lyn asked. "And, what's that ribbon about?"

"It's a Buckeye for you," I explained. "Buckeye State. Mother's Day." 

She shrugged and thanked me in a way that let me know that tree was not the best way to break our giftless tradition.

The only salve for my hurt was the fact that I had a brand new tree. I resisted suggesting she could give it to me for Father's Day the next month.

But, time (and a beautiful buckeye) can bring a woman around. After a couple of blooming seasons, Lyn allowed as how she liked the tree. Then, she began showing it off to visitors. Finally, we began joking that it was her favorite tree. Until we got to the point that I don't think we're joking.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Free Ferns: What a Surprise

When I began gardening in Connecticut 10 years ago, one of my must-haves was cinnamon fern, a plant I fell in love with decades ago. Before I could buy my first one in New England, I saw what seemed to be a roadside full of them, growing wild.

Sure enough, when I got out of my truck and looked closely, this fern that I used to buy sparingly in Atlanta was growing like a weed up and down my road. Wary about digging, I stopped a farmer aboard his tractor and asked if I could dig a couple or three.

"Sure," he said. "They're not mine; this is town property." Well, as a taxpayer, I figured I had already bought a few. So, I dug three and planted them.

About a year later, at around this time of year, I happened to be walking in my woods, and what did I see. Yep, you guessed it. Cinnamon ferns. Everywhere. 

Rushing back to the garage/potting shed, I got my wheelbarrow and shovel, went back to the woods and loaded up about a dozen ferns, which I scattered around the front garden. What a delicious surprise; I had bought a cinnamon-fern factory.

There's something about this fern. Maybe it's the appealing contrast of colors and textures of the two different fronds. Maybe it's the unusual quality of a plant whose resemblance to a spice is so great that I look at it and taste the spice. Whatever, this Osmunda cinnamomea is one fine fern.

The first year after transplanting, the formerly wild ferns produced one or two little cinnamon sticks, aka fertile fronds. But now the numbers and heights have increased dramatically. They must like the domesticity, even though it does not include fertilizer. 

Here's a sequence of images beginning in early April and focusing on one fern. The first photo shows the fern a few days after it pushed out of the ground.

After a couple of weeks, the cinnamon sticks grow more defined, and they're more numerous than ever before.

In late April, the leaves, which are sterile fronds, show up looking like regular fern fronds, as the cinnamon sticks continue growing apace.

Today, the fern is about two feet tall, still growing, turning ever more cinnamony. The fuzzy brown sticks will last for weeks. And, in autumn, the leaves will turn golden.

Meanwhile, in the woods, the cinnamon show promises to be impressive, as always. Together with the garden ferns, this amounts to a double-feature, one illustrating that sometimes priceless displays also can be affordable. Let's hear it for the woods.